Sunday, 15 July 2012 21:00

COMMENTARY Akron's Judicial Circus

Justice is supposed to be blind; there is no guarantee, however, that she lost her sense of smell.

Too bad, because what's been going on in the Akron Municipal Court system stinks.

As documented by the Akron Beacon Journal's Phil Trexler three times last week, first bringing to light the sudden resignation of Magistrate Orlando Williams and refusal by court officials to be transparent and open, even to the point of refusing to release Williams' salary.

The second story provided the viewpoint of soon-to-be former Magistrate Williams, who denied any inappropriate relationship with a tenant involved in a rent dispute that came before him. Then again, there was also the bit of dash-cam video (embed video linked below) where the tenant in question tells a state highway patrol officer during a DUI arrest less than 60 days they should call her "boyfriend" -- the "judge."

Last, but not least, four of the Akron Municipal Court's judges voted (apparently with little consultation with two of the other judges, who happen to be from the other political party) to oust, without much explanation, the 12-year court administrator Kenneth Kuckuck. Upon dismissal he thanked two judges, one Republican Lynn Callahan and the other  Democrat Carla Moore, for first giving him the job. Callahan is now a Common Pleas Judge; Moore serves on the Ohio Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This comes ahead of next week's scheduled appearance on failure to control a motor vehicle of public defender Catherine Loya who was caught, according to a police report, in an embarrassing situation with the Municipal Court Judge who's courtroom she was assigned to. The failure to control charge was filed because, to the good fortune of the public defender, she declined the task of a breathalyzer test when caught in the car with her friend the Judge. At least Judge Joy Malek Oldfield had the good sense to admit she'd been drinking and wasn't behind the wheel.

There was considerable lag-time in recognizing the potential conflict of interest posed by having a defense lawyer under disability (she couldn't drive a car because of the charge) continuing to present cases in front of the very same judge involved in the case who was now driving her to work. Eventually even the most tone-deaf at the Justice Center realized there were just some things they couldn't let pass. Loya was reassigned; the ethics of the entire situation spurred plenty of comment and debate. Loya's case is on schedule to be heard in Barberton Municipal Court soon, but one could ask why it takes from the arrest (February 5th) until the summer (the week of July 16th) to get the issue settled. Is five months the typical timeline any of us regular folk could expect from the court system?

Are you at the point yet of wondering just who's in charge of the Akron Municipal Court? I sure am, and wondering just why the business of the closest-to-the-people branch of Ohio's judicial system is so closed off to the public.

There are plenty of questions but first let's remember the judicial system should be one where we can trust those engaged in the process are impartial to all but the truth; their mission is to help find right from wrong, to decide cases in a fair and straightforward manner, and avoid the appearance of impropriety.

We expect worse from the legislative and executive branch of government, where the politics is practiced more openly. It's a primary reason why politicians of every stripe rank so incredibly low in public polls. We in the media rank higher, but not by much.

We expect better from those either elected in Ohio (as Municipal Court, Common Pleas Court, District Appeals Courts or Supreme Court judges) and we should have an expectation of the same from those appointed to act with the power of the people in an un-elected but appointed capacity, such as Magistrates.

In the case of the goings-on recently in the Akron Municipal Court district, the courtroom looks more like Delta Tau Chi made famous in "Animal House."

The sudden resignation of Magistrate Williams, under a cloud of allegations he provided favorable treatment to one party over the other, has unleashed more than one complaint from others that they were treated in a similar manner. One commentary online even noted he lost his case despite the other party not even showing up for a hearing. Others complained they, too, were treated unfairly and without regard to the law and had to go through a costly appeals process to find the justice that seemed book-ready. To not make public Magistrate Williams' personnel files, or concerns of his administration wielding the same power as a judge, hammers directly at the faith citizens must have in the judicial process.

The Akron Bar Association cloaks it's investigations of such matters in privacy to protect the reputations of judges and lawyers who, not surprisingly, are often the targets of false allegations. In this case, however, involving a sitting magistrate appointed through the political process of judges and not the public, a more transparent handling of the case is in order.

At the very least the presiding judge of Akron Municipal Court, Judge Annalisa S. Williams, should order a review of Magistrate Williams' cases to determine if the appearance shown in the back-rent eviction case of defendant/aquaintance/girlfriend/mentor (take your pick) Ashley Boykin is the only public example of questionable justice. Judge Williams or the Ohio Supreme Court should step in and order an investigation by competent legal minds who don't have political ties to the Delta Tau house in Akron.

The voters of the Akron Municipal Court district have a right to know why the administrator who was competent enough to win the support of respected jurists such as Moore and Callahan a dozen years ago has now become so persona non grata that he was dismissed, without notice, following a Star Chamber-like decision made by the members of the political club within the muni court judge's wing. Can you imagine the outrage if members of the Appeals or Supreme Court held meetings, withheld information, and voted on the administration of the courts while excluding those duly-elected representatives from the opposition? Imagine Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, herself a veteran of these Summit County courthouse wars, pulling a stunt like this with Justice Yvette McGee Brown shut out from the process.

Unfortunately, municipal court systems designed to be the primary stop for non-felony offenders and small claims disputes appears to have become ensnared in the petty political maneuvering between Democrats and Republicans in Summit County. Unelected magistrates operate by appointment, with these plum $90,000 a year assignments often offering little in the way of enforced standards of high performance other than the handprint of party bosses awarding patronage to prospective candidates moving up the food chain or loyal soldiers willing to put their names on a ballot in the general election wars. Elected municipal court positions seem to function as the minor league farm system for politically-astute lawyers who are always keeping an eye on what's available in the greener pastures of the Courthouse. The judicial system is in danger of becoming nothing more than a mirror to the self-interest we see in other political offices.

At least when we elect judges in the Municipal, Common Pleas, Appeals and Supreme Courts they are accountable to the people. Magistrates are only accountable to the lords and ladies of the court above them, shielded from accountability until the light of publicity from an enterprising reporter uncovers the appearance of wrongdoing. It's far past the time for the adults to step back in to the room and wrest back control of the courts before they do more permanent damage and we find ourselves losing faith in yet another government institution.

Published in Local

The Akron Bar Association requests Copley Police documents involving an Akron municipal court public defender. reported on Tuesday that Catherine Loya, a public defender, would be re-assigned following a Feb. 5 police report from Copley that indicated she refused a breathalyzer test when found in a car with Akron Municipal Court Judge Joy Oldfield. A Copley police officer reported the vehicle smelled of alcohol.

The Beacon Journal reports police documents regarding the incident are now in the hands of the Akron Bar. Any investigation by the association would be a private manner and findings could eventually be passed on to the Ohio Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, City Prosecutor Doug Powley questioned a potential conflict on reports from the Beacon Journal that stated Oldfield provided a ride to work for Loya following the incident. Loya lost her license to drive pending a citation for physical control of a vehicle and refusing the test.

Powley says he has reviewed the allegations with his courtroom prosecutor and has been assured that there has been "no adverse results" during the time that Judge Oldfield served in the courtroom.

The newspaper reports Oldfield's attorney admits she had been drinking that night, but John Hill says she was not drunk. He told the Beacon Journal on Sunday that the judge is "dumbfounded and incredibly upset" by the report, and there is "no unusual or inappropriate relationship" with Loya.

Previous Coverage: 

Public Defender Reassigned Following Allegations

Akron Judge Center of Police Report Flap

Published in Local