Six Clark County villages use either a mayor’s court or magistrate’s court to handle tickets given out by local police departments — North Hampton, Tremont City, Enon, Catawba, South Charleston and Donnelsville. North Lewisburg do so in Champaign County.
Saint Paris did away with their mayor’s court in 2017.
A municipality with a population of 200 or more in Ohio may establish a mayor’s court in which the mayor acts as judge. They can hear traffic cases and other violations of state and municipal laws with certain limits. The mayor doesn’t have to be a lawyer to hear cases but a village also can hire a magistrate, usually a local attorney, to act as a judge.
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The state has 297 mayor’s courts, down from 320 in 2012, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Opponents of mayor’s courts said village leaders could abuse their power and attempt to finance municipal operations through the court system. Legislation to abolish the courts has been attempted numerous times over the years.
“It’s so small it looks like they are using it as a village ATM, that’s how they fund their town or village,” said Tom Billing, a Clark County resident who often drives through the local villages and is opposed to mayor’s courts.
Freddy Peguero recently paid a speeding ticket at a mayor’s court in North Hampton.
“Nobody likes to pay, but it’s the law,” Peguero said.
Two of the highest in Ohio
North Hampton had 933 mayor’s court cases in 2016, which amounts to 195 cases for every 100 residents in the village. The majority of them are traffic tickets.
That’s down from 2015, when the village saw more than 1,000 cases, according to the Ohio supreme court.
“One of the reasons is because we have a state route that runs through the center of our village,” Young said, explaining the ticket rate. “Consequently it does create more traffic offenses than anything.”
Ohio 41 goes through the village.
Tickets are issued correctly in North Hampton, Young said, and the mayor’s court plays an important role for local justice.
“We have a mayor court near where the ticket was issued, which was really designed to make it more convenient for the people who have the tickets … We try to be fair and honest and professional,” Young said.
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Tremont City had 438 cases in 2016, about 116 cases per 100 residents. That’s down slightly from 2015, when it had more than 500 cases, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Springfield News-Sun reached out to Tremont City Mayor Rusty Smith and leaders of the other four village with mayor’s courts for comment but phone calls and emails weren’t returned.
The Ohio Supreme Court doesn’t track how much money the courts take in.
“Mayor’s courts aren’t courts of record in Ohio,” Ed Miller spokesman for the supreme court said in an email. “While some data from these courts are compiled here, the information we have doesn’t include the financial info that you’re seeking.”
In North Hampton, a portion of the money collected goes to the Ohio Supreme and Clark County Municipal courts, Young said, and the rest is put in the village’s general fund.
The Springfield News-Sun requested financial information from the Clark County villages to see how much money was collected by the courts over the past five years but none of the village clerks responded. Most local clerks don’t work full time, their phone messages said.
How North Hampton runs mayor’s courts
The Springfield News-Sun attended a North Hampton mayor court hearing this month to observe its practices.
The court is held in a house next to Sturgeon Park that’s been converted into a village building.
None of defendants had a lawyer when they appeared in the court the night the News-Sun attended, although all of the cases heard then were traffic tickets. Defendants received an information sheet when they entered the court explaining what options they had regarding pleading in the case.
“When your case is called, the magistrate will ask you to circle the number of one of the three pleas,” the sheet says.
The options are no contest, guilty and not guilty. Each of the options on the sheet explains what could take place should a defendant select that option. Should the defendant select no contest or guilty, the magistrate usually orders them to pay a fine. Should someone plead not guilty, the case will be set for a trial that will be held in front of the magistrate.
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“If your case does not carry a possible jail sentence, you are not entitled to a jury trial,” the sheet says.
Peguero was a defendant on March 15 and was called in front of the magistrate for a speeding ticket. He pleaded no contest and was ordered to pay $160.
“I go through here every day and had a bad day,” Peguero said of the ticket. “It’s the law and everybody can’t do whatever they want.”
The North Hampton magistrate, Jim Griffin, worked with defendants to dismiss some citations in exchange for no contest or guilty pleas on others. In one case, Griffin ordered a college student to pay only $35 because of his lack of a driving record.
Most villages with mayor court’s have a bad reputation for being speed traps, said Billing, who said he’s not received a traffic ticket from a mayor’s court.
“I am a big believer in justice,” Billing said. “I have known people who have been squeezed in towns with these courts.”
The perception of mayor’s courts is bad, he said.
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“I don’t like it, mayor’s courts should be done away with and the money needs to go to a general highway fund,” Billing said.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor issued stern guidance in a letter to hundreds of judges across the state in January.
“Courts are centers of justice, not automatic teller machines whose purpose is to generate revenue for governments, including themselves,” she said.
She previously had strong words about mayor’s courts.
“Mayor’s courts are the law in Ohio, and the reality is that there does not exist a majority consensus among policymakers to eliminate mayor’s courts altogether,” O’Conner said in a statement to the Springfield News-Sun in 2012. “We have made some progress in improving their functioning and accountability in recent years through the enactment of the reporting requirements to the Supreme Court of Ohio. As with any function of government, we can always do better. I believe that where we should focus our energies, is on examining mayor’s courts, how they function and where they can be improved.”
There’s talk in the Statehouse about the possibility of doing away with mayor’s courts, said state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield. Mayor’s courts have outlived their use, he said.
“I feel like they are a relic of the past,” Koehler said.
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He had run-ins with the now-defunct Lawrenceville court, he said, and didn’t find the court appropriate.
“I don’t want someone who doesn’t have any knowledge or formal training with the law deciding whether I broke it or not,” Koehler said. “You come to a table and sit down in a folding chair and they tell you what you owe.”
By the numbers:
2: Mayor’s courts in Champaign County
6: Mayor’s courts in Clark County
297: Mayor’s courts in Ohio in 2016
320: Mayor’s courts in 2012
The Springfield News-Sun digs into stories to protect taxpayers and residents of Clark and Champaign counties, including recent stories on how much Northwestern Schools spent on a superintendent investigation and the top delinquent taxpayers for each county.