Clark County judges threaten clerk with contempt

Clark County’s clerk of courts is facing a threat of contempt of court after three judges complained of repeated delays in the filing of court documents and demanded better access to legal files.

Common Pleas Court Judges Douglas Rastatter, Richard O’Neill and Thomas Capper jointly filed three separate orders to the clerk’s office in early June. The orders indicate that failure to meet their demands could mean Melissa Tuttle, who was elected as clerk of courts in 2016, could face legal action including a finding of contempt.

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Tuttle said this week she believes the issues raised by the common pleas court judges have since been resolved. She argued some of the delays were caused when her office transitioned to a new case management system. She also argued her office is trying to become more efficient after facing similar challenges under Ron Vincent, the previous clerk of courts. Tuttle defeated Vincent in an election for the position in November 2016.

“Any issues that have been brought to my attention have been resolved at this time,” Tuttle said.

She also said she’s made staffing changes since taking office to address the judge’s concerns.

“Timeliness was not a thing the employees of the office valued and this office appreciated,” Tuttle said. “I have the right team in place now that appreciates these values.”

The three judges declined to comment on the dispute. A letter filed on Jan. 8 from Judge Capper says the court has experienced delays since Tuttle closed a clerk’s annex in the A.B. Graham building after she took office.

“Since you have consolidated offices, we have experienced significant delays between the date in which documents are file stamped and the dates in which they are actually journalized,” Capper’s letter says. “Likewise, we have experienced significant delays between the file stamped date and the date in which pleadings and/or entries are filed away in the actual court files.”

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On Tuesday, Vincent said his staff always made it a priority to file court documents promptly.

“If there are any issues there, it was because (Tuttle) created them,” Vincent said.

Vincent said the clerk’s office never faced such serious concerns that three judges threatened contempt during his time running the office.

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“During that 4o-year period I had the pleasure to serve under numerous judges,” Vincent said. “At no time during that period was I called in before the judges for a similar issue.”

James Heath, a Springfield attorney and president of the Clark County Bar Association, said that entity’s executive committee recently approved a resolution saying the committee would support any action deemed necessary by the judges. He cautioned the executive committee does not necessarily speak for all members of the bar associaion.

In his personal experience, Heath said he believes the delay between when documents are timestamped and entered into the court record did not occur when Vincent was in charge of the office.

“I’m not aware of there being any such issue during his tenure,” Heath said.

Both sides are expected to meet and discuss progress in resolving the issues, although neither Tuttle nor the judges said when that meeting will take place. Andy Wilson, Clark County prosecutor, said his office has recused itself to prevent a conflict of interest. The court appointed a special prosecutor to represent Tuttle in the dispute, and the judges will also be represented by a separate attorney at the meeting.

Tuttle’s appointed attorney will represent her at no cost, while the judges are paying for their attorney from a separate court account generated from fees and fines so no taxpayer money will be spent, Wilson said.

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The judges filed three separate orders to Tuttle’s office on June 6 and 7 this year. The orders cite, “significant delays” between the date when documents are file stamped and when they are ultimately entered into the court’s record system.

Tuttle had announced plans to temporarily close her office for three days in June to transition to a new case management system. One of the orders required her office to remain open, noting they had not been consulted and closing the office would potentially be harmful to residents who needed to use the clerk’s office during that time.

A third set of orders required better access to court files, citing cases in which files were not provided to an individual judge within the timeframe they’d requested.

Tuttle said she was concerned the previous clerk’s office had been too lenient about providing access to court files because there was a chance files could be damaged or lost. She developed a new policy restricting some access, but said her staff always made sure the judges and the public could get the files promptly when needed.

“If anybody asked for anything, we got it for them,” Tuttle said.

A letter from Judge Capper to Tuttle on Jan. 8 this year shows the dispute has stretched on for months before the orders were filed in June. That letter also cited delays between when the court documents were file stamped and when they were officially entered into the court record.

“At this point in time, our direction to you, as the clerk of this court, shall come in the form of a letter…” Capper’s letter states. “However, if this issue is not corrected to our satisfaction immediately, our direction will be in the form of an order and that order will become a public record.”

Capper’s letter also mentions an agreement with former clerk Vincent in which the Common Pleas Court and adult Domestic Relations Division has shared a portion of increased court costs with the clerk’s office. But Capper says that deal hinged on the clerk’s office providing adequate support to the court.

“While we would like to honor the foregoing agreement, we will only be willing to do so if you make a genuine effort to immediately improve the service that you are providing to this court and therefore to the community which we all serve,” Capper’s letter says.

Andrea Strelsky, Tuttle’s chief deputy in the clerk of court’s office, defended her boss in a statement to the News-Sun.

“The Clerk’s Office is in a better place now than it has been in my 15 years,” Strelsky said. “Melissa has advocated hard for her staff to work while at work and she now has an office with more accountable staff, new filings and entrys are being done day of, if not the very next day, the office is more organized and professional, and that was never the case prior to her taking office.”

The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of local government and the courts in Clark and Champaign Counties. For this story, the paper reviewed court records and conducted several interviews to explain a dispute between three Clark County Common Pleas Court judges and the Clark County clerk of courts.

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