How Mayor’s Court works

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News on Feb. 4, 2016.

This is the first in a two-part series on mayor’s courts. This article addresses mayor’s courts in general, and the second will focus on the Yellow Springs court. Part two can be found here.

There was only one defendant at the most recent meeting of the Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court, who had been cited for driving under suspension. Others present were the officer who issued the citation and Mayor Dave Foubert, who heard the case from behind Village Council’s raised platform in Council chambers. There was no jury, prosecutor or transcript of the proceedings; the mayor, and the mayor alone, hears and adjudicates misdemeanor cases during Mayor’s Court.

During the court session Foubert mainly talked with the defendant about his citation. The defendant pled guilty, stating that he was driving without a license because he didn’t have the funds to reinstate it. The police officer weighed in, vouching for the defendant’s cooperation when he was pulled over. The three men discussed the particulars, after which Foubert, clad in a flannel shirt, leaned back in his chair to consider the information he was given. Ultimately, he upheld the citations but reduced the fees in consideration for the defendant’s financial situation. The hearing came to an end, and the three disbanded.

Such is a day in Yellow Springs’ Mayor’s Court. The casual back-and-forth is indicative of the role mayor’s courts are designed to play: mayor’s court offers defendants a quick, personal hearing and in some cases allows towns the ability to resolve cases in a way that reflects their values and needs.

“This is a local court. It’s more informal. Usually it’s the first court anyone comes in front of,” said Foubert in a previous interview. “It’s a little more relaxed, a little less stressful to be in mayor’s court rather than a place where a judge is wearing robes.”

How and why mayor’s court?

Mayor’s courts are an established part of Ohio’s legal landscape, governed by a section of the Ohio Revised Code. They are trial courts, a smaller-scale version of county or municipal courts, and serve towns of more than 200 people where there isn’t already a municipal court serving the jurisdiction. There are currently 310 mayor’s courts across Ohio, with Yellow Springs the only one in Greene County.

A typical mayor’s courts hears cases on dogs at large, drug cases, disorderly conduct, first time DUIs and various traffic offenses, said Christy Thome, clerk of Enon’s mayor’s court. Mayor’s courts do not hear cases involving violence, assault or crimes involving juveniles, even if the charges are misdemeanors. Eighty-three percent of the cases heard in Ohio’s mayor’s courts in 2013 were traffic violations, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.
“We can hear anything that’s not a felony, other than domestic violence and a second DUI,” said Thome.

The punishments imposed in a mayor’s court are as serious as any imposed by a municipal or county court. Ohio code allows the mayor to dispense the maximum sentence, give community service or remand a defendant into custody until a fine is paid. A mayor also has the ability to suspend or revoke someone’s driver’s license.

Defendants are able to plead no contest or guilty and be sentenced on the spot. A defendant can also plead not guilty and make the case for his innocence directly to the mayor. The mayor will hear the arresting officer’s side of the story as well as the defendant’s, and make a judgment about the defendant’s guilt as part of the hearing. Foubert explained that the defendant is effectively given a trial, though the mayor is the only one involved in deciding the outcome.

According to the Ohio Revised Code, mayor’s courts are not courts of record, meaning that the proceedings don’t have to be recorded. Many don’t use court reporters, and are not required to. Those that do record the hearings, such as the Dublin’s mayor’s court outside of Columbus, make the recordings available as part of the public record, according to Lisa Wilson, clerk of the Dublin court.

A defendant unhappy with the mayor’s court ruling can appeal the decision and have a brand new hearing in a municipal or county court, which disregards a mayor’s court ruling completely. This is counterbalance to the ostensibly informal nature of the proceedings, said Susan Cave, director of the Ohio Municipal League, a nonprofit association certified to conduct mayor’s court training.

“People take comfort in knowing they have an automatic appeal,” Cave said.

Ohio and Louisiana are often cited as the only two states in the country that have mayor’s courts, but approximately half of the states have a small-scale court system resembling mayor’s courts, said Karen Sheffer, a Columbus-based court magistrate and mayor’s court training instructor. Such courts are often referred to as “community courts,” a reflection of whom they are designed to serve.

Training required of the mayor
As spelled out in the Ohio Revised Code, a mayor presiding over a mayor’s court does not have to have any legal experience, but the mayor must complete Supreme Court-approved training within 60 days of taking office in order to preside over court, according to Ohio code. Six hours of training are required to be able to hear non-drug and alcohol related cases, and an additional six hours of training are required to hear OVI offenses, a total of 12 hours of training for new mayors. The training covers courtroom procedures and is designed to give the mayor a “basic legal education,” according to the Ohio Municipal League.

Three hours of additional continuing education credits are required each year for both OVI and non-drug related offenses, meaning that a mayor will take up to six hours of continuing-education courses annually. However, if a mayor does not have the training required to oversee a court or simply doesn’t want to, a magistrate is appointed in the mayor’s stead. The magistrate must be a lawyer with at least three years of professional experience.
Pros and cons of mayor’s court

Susan Cave, of the Ohio Municipal League, said the courts are places where minor crimes can be dealt with more conveniently and less expensively than by sending the cases to a higher court located outside of the town issuing the citation. Officers don’t have to travel to other courts and spend time waiting around to testify, nor do defendants have to travel and miss work, she said. Mayor’s court officials from Brunswick and South Zanesville agreed with this assessment of the convenience factor, and Wilson said the Dublin’s mayor’s court proceedings start at 5 p.m. to better accommodate its citizens.

In some towns, mayor’s courts are seen as an antidote to impersonal systemic justice. The relationship between a mayor and a town’s citizens may make for a more individualized justice, taking into account a defendant’s history and tailoring punishment accordingly, said Cave.
Melissa Hartfield, who presides over the mayor’s court in Granville, says that she and many of her colleagues believe that mayor’s courts are more “personable,” helping people maneuver their issues and “steering them away from becoming repeat offenders.” She said the Granville court has an Alternative Plea Program, which allows many first time offenders to have their charges dismissed upon completion of education and community service programs. All applicants have their case thoroughly reviewed by the town’s prosecutor to see if they are eligible for this program, she said, which facilitates a more personal interaction between a defendant and the law.

Lisa Wilson, of Dublin, Ohio’s mayor’s court, said mayor’s courts are often more willing to help defendants understand what is going on, as they generally have the chance to speak with someone about how the legal process works and what their particular case involves.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone downtown [Columbus] who would do the same,” Wilson said.

And more generally, by taking on the bulk of the misdemeanor and traffic violations, mayor’s courts minimize the workload of higher courts, said Hartfield.

However, opponents of mayor’s courts say that the courts can be fraught with inherent conflicts of interest.

The fact that a mayor can levy fines that are paid into the budget that he or she controls is an ethically dubious practice, according to Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, quoted in a 2012 investigative report published by the Columbus Dispatch. (In Yellow Springs, Council controls the budget, so the mayor doesn’t have this potential conflict.) The ACLU of Ohio contends that towns can take advantage of the power of a mayor’s court to financially benefit the town, specifically through things like speed traps and issuing excessive traffic citations.

For example, Linndale, Ohio, a town with a population of 179, issued around 3,780 traffic violations in 2011. The mayor’s court in Hanging Rock, Ohio, reported $401,218 in court revenue in 2009, 95 times the amount the village collected in property tax and other local taxes, according to the 2012 Dispatch report.

And some opponents of mayor’s court say that mayor’s court sentences for drunken driving infractions are a point of contention, stating that charges are often reduced in favor of paying a larger fine, according to the Ohio Bar Association website.

The 2012 Dispatch article also stated that while numerous complaints have been filed against mayor’s courts — the state itself has documented numerous misdeeds in record keeping, missing documentation and cash imbalances — investigations or audits of mayor’s courts are rare. Investigation into a mayor’s court is the responsibility of the local prosecutor, said a spokesperson for the state auditor’s office in the Dispatch article, but rarely are mayor’s courts investigated. Former state Senator Kevin Coughlin in the article said that legislators are likewise unwilling to meddle in the affairs of their constituent districts. A Senate bill proposed in 2007 would have eliminated mayor’s courts in cities with fewer than 1,600 people (and would have replaced the mayor or magistrate with an official fully under the supervision of the Supreme Court), but this bill failed in the House.

The second article in this series will address how the Yellow Springs Mayor’s Court operates and the decline in its use in recent years.

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