News: Disorder in the Court

Justice can be plodding in municipal court

Sep 17, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

The unofficial motto at Hamilton County Municipal Court is "Hurry Up and Wait."

To the unfamiliar, a brush with Hamilton County Municipal Court can be wizening. Here's a little taste.

First off, if you've been held overnight, you'll find yourself appearing before a judge at what is called an arraignment — the window of opportunity for a lawyer you've probably never met to secure your freedom or at least a bond you can swing financially by telling the judge good things about you, such as your age and that you have a job.

This initial cog in the justice system, unlike the usual square-wheeled progress, operates on a rocket docket. On a recent day, Judge John H. Burlew dispatches with more than 20 cases in less than an hour. At one point, speaking to no one in particular, he asks if the cops had convened a drug sweep the prior evening, as most of the disheveled docket-dwellers are there on drug charges.

All tolled, Burlew is scheduled to set bond for or set free 168 defendants that day.

'Hurry up and wait'
But let's say you're not the one in trouble, you just want to watch the proceedings. Upon entering Courtroom A in the Hamilton County Justice Center downtown, one has the odd sense of entering the Cincinnati Zoo lion's den. The bench, members of the bar, armed guards and the defendants all operate behind a glass enclosure while onlookers — about 35 that morning — sit in churchlike pews.

It seems odd that the judge and lawyers are encaged with the accused, but then again there aren't any metal detectors at the doors, as there are at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

On this particular day, most of the supplicants are pretty tame and Burlew seems inclined to clemency. One Richard Hyman, however, tests his patience.

Hyman saunters up to the defendant's podium, offering the audience a snarly scowl, and slouches behind it.

"Do you want to show a little more respect?" Burlew asks.

Hyman mumbles something about there being no gangs in Cincinnati and something about Tall Stacks.

"Why are you all wasting my time?" Hyman says.

Then he begins yelling "Objection, objection," while the lawyers and the judge try to conduct their business. Burlew calmly overrules Hyman's objections and five guards haul him off.

Once he's dispatched, the judge sets bond at $50,000. After the prosecutor notes that Hyman has gang affiliations and access to large amounts of cash, however, Burlew ups the bond to $100,000. Onlookers in the audience whistle, gasp and even laugh.

Anyone who commits an incarcerating infraction — from murder down to disorderly conduct — starts off in arraignment. From there felony violators eventually head off across the street to the county courthouse for the Court of Common Pleas. Many more people — those who have already made bond or haven't been jailed — bypass the first step in Courtroom A and go directly to the municipal courtrooms in the courthouse itself.

That's where, as Municipal Judge Tim Black puts it, the name of the game is "hurry up and wait."

On this day the municipal court's criminal docket, including everything from first-offense domestic violence to traffic violations, weighs in with 45 pages worth of cases to be heard — or not heard — by 12 of the 14 municipal judges.

Nearly every person on the docket is scheduled for the same time, 9 a.m. One might wonder how Municipal Judge Lisa Allen can hear 18 cases at 9 a.m. But with all the continuances due to missing witnesses and the like, the courts stack the docket to keep cases moving.

Early that day in Black's court, one case is continued because a police officer, a witness in a DUI case, fails to show up.

"I think it stinks that the officer isn't here," Black says.

Sometimes, when witnesses fail to show, the judge is forced to dismiss a case for lack of the ability to prosecute. Black allows only one continuance per side.

Out of the nearly 2.8 million cases that Ohio's municipal courts handled in 2002, about 316,000 were dismissed for lack of a speedy trial, absent witnesses and other procedural errors. Hamilton County Municipal Court dismissed 12,736 of its 268,040 total resolved cases in 2002, according to records at the Ohio Supreme Court.

There are a number of reasons why a cop might not appear in court as scheduled, but if a police officer is on duty and doesn't appear he or she would be in serious trouble, according to Black.

'Much more fun'
And what if a case can't be heard because the defense attorney isn't in court? That happens in several courtrooms on this day. As a matter of fact, Black is able to take a coffee break during the very next case because no one — despite a search by court staff — can locate the public defender.

"I'm going to step down now," Black announces with some annoyance. "We're waiting on the lawyers in part, as can happen. Welcome to municipal court."

Black, who has twice run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court, says he prefers his current assignment to the kinds of cases handled in common pleas court.

"I think it's much more fun to be in the municipal courts," he says. "I'm not really interested in being a felony court judge, dealing with murderers, rapists and robbers all day."

Considering that the municipal courts are the busiest criminal courts in the state and public defenders have to hop from one courtroom to another, it's not all that surprising an attorney might get hung up somewhere along the way, Black says.

Talking about absent attorneys and cops afterward, Black doesn't seem too miffed. But judging from the number of harrumphs coming from the audience, the involved parties certainly are.

In Judge Ralph "Ted" Winkler's courtroom, the accused and the witnesses in one domestic abuse case have been waiting in the barely cushioned chairs since 8:30 a.m. When the defendant's public defender can't be located, the judge decides it's time for a lunch break.

"This happens all the time," says the witness' mother, who has to take the day off of work. Her daughter is missing school to be here.

When court reconvenes a little after 1 p.m., the prosecutor announces another delay. Because the cop — again — fails to show, the victim's family will have to make a return trip if they care to pursue prosecution.

The courthouse hallways fill with a cattle-call commotion when people turn up missing. Lawyers bellow in the halls looking for their clients, often people they've never laid eyes on before. Then prosecutors bellow in the halls, looking for public defenders. Meanwhile, defendants, victims and witnesses sit glassy-eyed, wondering where the decorum they see on Law & Order has gone.

There seems to be a modicum of disrespect permeating the municipal court system, with lawyers not even apologizing for being late, witnesses and defendants ignoring court orders to appear and AWOL cops. Is it because of the nonchalant feel of the place? Unless you get there first thing in the morning, you never even hear "All rise" when the judge enters or leaves the room.

Could changes be made to ease the pain of having to come to court? Not likely, according to Black.

"It would require a systemwide response, and there are just too many players involved in these courts," he says.

If you have to go to court, the best way to prepare is to grab a John Grisham novel and learn to hurry up and wait. ©