Summit County judges are embroiled in a dispute over who should appoint lawyers in crime cases.
Common Pleas judges plan to take over the process, while most communal judges want to keep it.
The defenders who receive these appointments – and whose contributions to judicial campaigns fuel the fire – are caught in the middle. Some say the unofficial rule has been for lawyers appointed in cases to assist judges in their elections.
For decades, Akron, Barberton, and Stow district courts have appointed attorneys to represent low-income defendants charged with criminal offenses. City judges oversee cases from charge to presentation to a grand jury. If a grand jury indicts, the case will be referred to the Common Pleas Court.
The 10 justices of Summit County’s Common Pleas Court recently passed a new trial set to begin Wednesday. This includes a public defense attorney who handles crime cases in a city court and a Common Pleas judge who then appoints an attorney to handle the case.
Amy Corrigall Jones, the administrative judge on the Common Pleas Court, said the process will improve oversight and help ensure that the case lawyers are qualified to handle these cases. She said the change was part of a larger effort to improve the county’s judicial system.
“We hope that we can better monitor these cases as this is our obligation and we take it very seriously,” said Jones.
Several other major Ohio counties, including Cuyahoga, Mahoning, Lucas, and Montgomery, have similar practice of attorney appointments.
However, the Akron and Barberton justices argue that Summit County Common Pleas judges lack the power to adopt a new trial and impose it on them. They say they will continue to appoint attorneys until they get an opinion from the Ohio Supreme Court or the Ohio Attorney General.
“We don’t think they can,” said Barberton Judge Todd McKenney. “We don’t think they should.”
However, two judges in the county are staying out of the fight. Stow Town Justices Kim Hoover and Lisa Coates have approved the new trial.
“I think it’s a waste of time for city judges to dig into their heels and cry over them,” said Hoover, a judge for 25 years.
Attorney Andrea Whitaker, chairwoman of the Akron Bar Association’s crime department, said she wasn’t sure what lawyers will do if a city judge calls her for an appointment after the new trial begins.
“It will put us in a very difficult position,” she said.
The current appointment process dates back nearly 50 years when the Summit County’s Legal Defense Office was established.
This office represents people charged with offenses who cannot afford their own lawyers. Low income defendants charged with crime are represented by private lawyers appointed to represent them. Many other major counties in Ohio, including Cuyahoga and Franklin, have a system of crime that includes a combination of public defense lawyers and private attorneys.
“Summit is unusual in this regard,” said J. Dean Carro, retired law professor at Akron University and chairman of Summit County’s Legal Defender Commission.
Summit County decided to take a closer look at its nomination process last year after lawmakers increased reimbursement rates for the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, the state agency that channels money to counties for defense in need.
The Summit County’s review included a public session, reviews of the current system and reimbursement rates, a review of incarceration rates in each court, and meetings with the public defense attorney and prosecutor.
Don Malarcik, a noted Akron defense attorney and long-time member of the Lawyers’ Committee that evaluates local judge candidates, has been concerned about the appointment process for some time. He said that too often appointments in complex crime cases involve contributions from attorneys to judicial campaigns.
“I have seen key contributors to city court judges receive significant appointments,” he said.
Malarcik said he noticed this anecdotally, including reading about an attorney holding a fundraiser and then appointing that attorney on a major case. Sometimes, he said, these lawyers are not qualified to handle the case because they lack the necessary experience.
Malarick said he asked many judge candidates about his concerns during the interviews with the legal committee. He said the response has been positive, particularly from the Common Pleas judges who told him, “We’re seeing the same problem and we’re trying to fix it.”
The new process
Under the new district procedure, the public defenders assigned to each district court will bring charges of criminal offenses.
These are the first appearances where a guilty pledge is made and a bond is established.
On the same day as the indictment, a Common Pleas judge will assign an attorney to the case from a list kept by the Common Pleas Court.
Joe Kodish, the county’s longtime defender who is retiring, said public defenders can handle the charges in addition to their normal duties. Due to a funding surge, his office recently increased its workforce and salaries.
Summit increases funding:Public defenders were among the lowest paid in the state
Kodish said public defense lawyers were qualified to bring the charges.
“This is the first gig,” he said. “You’re not trying the case.”
Jones said she received assurances from the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Conduct, the Ohio Supreme Court’s case mandates division, and the Ohio Public Defense Counsel that the new procedure meets state requirements. She said the trial would save money and reduce the length of the defendants’ detention.
When asked if there are campaign contributions going into the new process, Jones said, “I hope they have nothing to do with the analysis. Crime judges should appoint lawyers for crime cases. There doesn’t seem to be a legitimate reason for them to appoint a case that they won’t be monitoring. “
Ohio attorney Tim Young said both Summit County’s old and new appointment procedures were acceptable. Ideally, all judges in a county should agree on a trial and list of qualified lawyers to avoid having to appoint a different lawyer when the case moves from local to joint litigation.
“My best practice is an agreed-upon list,” he said. “That is also the cheapest.”
Akron and Barberton judges recently issued a joint press release expressing their concerns about the new trial.
The judges said they had not been properly consulted on the change and asked if public defense lawyers were qualified to represent defendants of crimes that may be charged with a crime such as murder.
“City court judges are required to appoint a qualified attorney at all stages of criminal proceedings,” they said.
Annalisa Stubbs Williams, a judge at Akron for 17 years, said the process for appointing attorneys has been the same for 36 years. She said the city judges had selected lawyers from a list kept by the bar association. If the Common Pleas judges were concerned about the appointment of the attorneys, they should have spoken to the city judges.
“The Common Pleas judges have no authority over us,” she said.
McKenney said that Common Pleas justices want to take on the appointment of attorneys, but still have other duties that will accompany the early stages of the case, such as: B. Leave issues of borrowing or violations of GPS monitoring devices to the city judges. If they want to appoint the lawyers, they should do all of these jobs.
McKenney said the city justices would like a higher court to settle this dispute.
When asked how campaigning contributes to this disagreement, Akron judge Nicole Walker said the new process would not resolve this issue. She said the Common Pleas judges, like city judges, rely on donations from lawyers to fund their campaigns.
“Will you decline the campaign submissions?” asked Walker, Akron’s administrative judge.
Hoover and Coates, the Stow judges, have hired a different court clerk to make the appointment for the past two years. Hoover said other city judges had not taken this step, however.
He said it was an unspoken rule that the attorneys appointed in the cases assist the judges at election time. He believes this is part of the reason for the current power struggle.
“I think that’s definitely a factor and the gorilla in the corner of the room,” he said.
Hoover said the concerns he has about the new trial are primarily procedural, such as how quickly lawyers are appointed, and have been adequately addressed. He said the Stow court was ready to move the new process forward.
However, it is unclear what will happen in the Akron and Barberton courts.
Brian Nelsen, Summit County’s executive chief of staff, Ilene Shapiro, said the county would have to pay all lawyers appointed by the city judges but would not be happy.
“I would certainly hope we don’t get stuck in a situation where we pay for an attorney to the law firm and the judges appoint attorneys and burden the taxpayers with these additional costs,” he said.
Nelsen said the new procedure was one of several improvements planned for the courts. Others are increasing rates for private lawyers in criminal cases and creating a database that will make it easier to track and analyze fees paid to lawyers. He said this information would also help the county decide whether the public defender’s office should play a bigger role in crime cases.
“At this point we don’t have the data to tell one way or another,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at [email protected], 330-996-3705 and on Twitter at @swarsmithabj.