CH judge provides municipal court update
On or before the last day of March each year, municipal courts throughout Ohio submit a report of their operations during the preceding calendar year to the legislative authority and to the board of county commissioners of each county within their territory. The report shows the work performed by the court; a statement of receipts and expenditures of the civil and criminal branches; the number of cases heard, decided, and settled; and any other data that the supreme court, the secretary of state, the legislative authority, and the board of county commissioners requires. As I prepared the data for the report for 2017, which occurred before I took office, I found myself reflecting on the first two and a half months that I have been in office.
Let me begin by stating that it is an honor to serve Cleveland Heights as its judge. It has at times been trying, for example, setting bail for an accused who is pulled over and allegedly found to have a small amount of drugs, but also a loaded, unlicensed, semi-automatic handgun in the vehicle. The preeminent purpose of bail is to ensure that an accused appears at all stages of the criminal proceedings. It is also necessary to take into consideration the potential danger to the community of the accused. All this has to occur while affording the greatest degree of fairness to the accused, who is just that, accused, and innocent until proven guilty.
It has also been rewarding—seeing the relief on someone’s face after letting [him] know that I am going to give [him] an opportunity to untangle the complicated legal web of driving under suspension. There are myriad ways to end up with a suspended license, and the costs to the BMV and others to get valid are often astonishing. That stated, driving is a privilege, and anyone who wishes to do so must follow the law. That is why it is so nice to be able to give people a way to move forward while maintaining the ability to punish if they do not take advantage of that opportunity.
Whatever the case before me, I am seeking to uphold the ideals of our judicial system and enhance our community. To that end, I have begun making a number of changes at the courthouse. First, I have reorganized the court’s schedule. The biggest change is consolidating all housing matters, both evictions and housing code violation cases, on to my docket rather than a magistrate’s docket. I feel that it is critical that I, as judge, have direct contact with each of the housing code violation cases to ensure, among other things, that they are not allowed to linger unnecessarily. I have also begun conducting all jail cases through the court’s video conferencing system. This both saves time and makes the courthouse safer because police officers are no longer required to escort those individuals up into the courtroom.
Finally, I have hired three part-time magistrates to replace the retiring full-time magistrate who had served the court in that capacity for many years. Because I have taken on the evictions and housing code violation cases, the total number of hours worked by the three magistrates is less than the hours formerly worked by the full-time magistrate. This saves the court, and in turn the city, money.
The newly hired magistrates bring with them a wide variety of legal experience and diversity. Gary Benjamin is a longtime Cleveland Heights resident and former advocacy director for Legal Aid; Rod Mastandrea is a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School and a practicing criminal defense attorney; and Kimberly Bolton is a former prosecutor for the city of Cleveland Heights.
There are other changes to come. The court’s computer hardware and software update is underway. This will save money, make the court more efficient, allow for electronic filing, and be better for the environment by allowing it to become completely paperless. Also on the technology front, the court’s website is getting completely redesigned to make it more user-friendly and give everyone access to more information.
I look forward to sharing these and other updates with you, and I thank you for entrusting me to serve as your judge. I promise that I will continue to do so with the utmost integrity.
James Costello is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court.