Butler County prosecutor again pushing Area Court consolidation to end part-time judges

Butler County Government Services Center
Butler County Government Services Center

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser has been pushing to eliminate part-time judges for years, but now with a vacancy on the Area Courts, the commissioners say they are willing to consider it.

Gmoser included a plan to possibly combine the Area I Court in Oxford and Area II Court in Hamilton into one full-time court as part of his tax budget proposal to the commissioners. The Hamilton courtroom is usually standing-room only, and the Oxford court routinely is in session late into the evening because of the number of cases.

He proposes a new location for both courts, which would probably necessitate the creation of a mayor’s or municipal court in Oxford. He also said that ideally he would like to see all three Area Courts, including the one in West Chester Twp., combined into one full-time court. He acknowledged it will take approval by not only the county commissioners — from a facilities standpoint — the state legislature and Ohio Supreme Court.

The perception of impropriety when a part-time judge rules on a case one day and then represents a client on the same charge the next has caused Gmoser to seek the end of part-time judges.

Area Court Presiding Judge Rob Lyons has been under Gmoser’s radar for years because he sits on the bench in Oxford deciding DUI cases and also has a private practice defending drunk drivers. He also mentioned a decade ago Common Pleas Court Presiding Judge Michael Sage, who has since retired, disqualified Lyons from ruling on certain DUI cases because of the appearance of impropriety.

“He’s the poster boy for me about why we shouldn’t have part-time judges,” Gmoser told the Journal-News. “And we only need one, they only serve one day a week. The net result is there could be considerable savings in facilities.”

There are 49 employees working in the three courts not including administrative staff that serve the court as a whole, according to the 2022 tax budget submission. The total 2021 budget is $2.96 million.

The county leases space in Oxford but that amount was not available. The county owns the Historic Courthouse in Hamilton, where Area II is housed, and the commissioners recently finalized a new 16-month lease agreement with West Chester for $3,000 monthly.

On the issue of impropriety Lyons told the Journal-News there could be a “perception of an appearance of impropriety” on a part-time bench but he has never seen it.

“There’s that potential but I don’t know that it’s happened,” Lyons said. “There’s always a potential of impropriety with a judge, but that doesn’t mean there’s an impropriety.”

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Unseating elected, sitting judges without cause would be very difficult, but there is a vacancy on the three-judge court. Former Area III Court Judge Dan Haughey was elected to the Common Pleas Court bench office last year and took office in January.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said the vacancy makes this a good time to consider Gmoser’s idea. He raised it previously during budget hearings last year.

“This has been an on-and-off discussion for a number of years,” Rogers said. “So when there is a vacancy and in the number of Area Court judges then this probably is more of an opportune time to further the discussion.”

Haughey’s seat was filled almost immediately. Lyons applied for it and was appointed by the governor. He would have been term-limited by his age if he fulfilled his own term in office.

Butler County GOP Executive Chairman Todd Hall said officials sent Lyons’ application to Gov. Mike DeWine, and after he was appointed, they sent another to fill Lyons’ vacated seat. Only one attorney applied to fill the Lyons vacancy, and DeWine has yet to fill the seat.

A DeWine spokesman said the legal division is still working on the appointment.

The judges are elected to the court as a whole not to specific locations. Lyons has remained in Oxford, and visiting judges have been manning the West Chester court. West Chester Trustee Ann Becker expressed frustration about the situation.

“I know that’s kind of frustrating for our police officers, you never really know who’s going be sitting on that bench,” Becker said. “It’s not good to have a substitute teacher month, after month, after month, after month.”

Lyons said there may be a savings to the county, but an additional expense to the other jurisdictions if the courts are consolidated.

“Really the savings for West Chester and Oxford are tremendous not having to leave Oxford and West Chester,” Lyons said. “Oxford, Miami (University), Oxford Twp. West Chester police having the court in their township or in their area is a tremendous savings.”

Becker said she doesn’t want the township to lose its court and Oxford City Manager Doug Elliott said the city already studied this when Gmoser raised the issue previously and they do not support such a move.

Commissioner Don Dixon said it won’t be easy if they do pursue it but that isn’t a good reason to just dismiss it.

“That won’t be a simple move, you’ve got to bet all those people together, to agree to it,” Dixon said. “We’ll look at it, we look at everybody’s suggestions and ideas and we’ll look at this and see. On the face of it is a pretty complex move, but you never say no to somebody that has an idea.”