A matter of judgment

Most Cleveland Heights residents will never find themselves in municipal court, but its activities affect the safety and quality of life of all of us. We rely on it when a neighbor fails to bring her/his house up to code, when a speeding driver endangers pedestrians and other motorists, when a woman is threatened or beaten by her domestic partner.

On Nov. 7, Cleveland Heights voters will choose a replacement for Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge A. Deane Buchanan, who is retiring due to age limits. Vying to succeed Buchanan are attorneys James Costello, Naydeen Hayden and DeAngelo Little.

In Ohio, judicial elections take place every six years. There is no cap on how many terms a judge may serve, but there is an upper age limit of 70. The CH court has had three judges over the past 42 years, with Sara Hunter serving from 1975 to 1993, Lynn Toler from 1993 to 2001, and Deane Buchanan from 2001 to the present. (Toler resigned early in her second term to start a career as a television judge. She has appeared on “Divorce Court” since 2006.)

Established in 1958, the court deals with misdemeanors and civil matters that occur in Cleveland Heights. (University Heights cases are handled by the Shaker Heights Municipal Court.) The court’s annual report is submitted to CH City Council and to Cuyahoga County, which provides partial funding for the salaries of the judge and other court officials. The court’s budget is determined by CH City Council.

The judge oversees some two dozen employees, including a magistrate, bailiffs, court clerk, deputy clerks and probation officers. The magistrate is, in effect, an associate judge, who hears a large proportion of cases, making it possible for the court to function with one elected judge. Magistrate Georgeann Schmidt has served since 1988, providing continuity from one judge to the next. She made history in 2015 when she performed the city’s first same-sex wedding.

Once someone pleads or is found guilty, a probation officer investigates the case, writes a report and recommends a sentence to the judge. While fines provide revenue for the city, the judge’s chief goal should be to minimize the chance of a person committing future, and more severe, crimes. If alcohol or drugs are involved, sentences may include mandated treatment.

A judge must combine firmness, empathy for those affected by the crime, and understanding of the life and circumstances of the person who committed it. Many of these are among the poorest residents of Cleveland Heights and neighboring communities. A steep fine may exacerbate a homeowner’s difficulty in repairing her/his house. Lengthy jail time or a suspended license can result in the loss of a job. Treatment, restitution and probation, depending on an individual’s history, may be equally or more effective.

As voters, how can we evaluate candidates for the singular position of municipal judge?  As with other campaigns, we can consult their websites, along with the League of Women Voters’ election guide, published in the October issue of the Heights Observer and online at Vote411.org. In addition, Judge4yourself.com rates judicial candidates. We can also attend candidates’ forums and perhaps speak directly with the candidates themselves.

But once a judge is elected and sworn in, what then?

To evaluate how city council members or school board members perform, citizens can attend their meetings (all are open to the public), watch them on YouTube or cable, or learn about them in the media. We can communicate directly with these representatives; engaged citizens do have opportunities to gauge their performance.

A judge, on the other hand, has considerable power and little accountability. News coverage of suburban municipal courts has all but disappeared over the past several decades. The CH court’s annual report is not even posted on its website.

If the judge we elect this year runs again in 2023, as history shows will likely be the case, we will have little more than that incumbent’s word about how she or he has managed the court, treated the staff and made potentially life-altering decisions on the bench. In a democracy, that is not enough.

We hope other voters will join us in asking judicial candidates what they will do, if elected, to improve transparency. Posting the annual report on the court’s website would be one small first step.

(More information on Cleveland Heights Municipal Court is available at www.clevelandheightscourt.com.)

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 10, Issue 9, Posted 1:57 PM, 09.01.2017