CLEVELAND, Ohio – A dispute over how many judges sit in Cuyahoga County’s Common Pleas Court could be on the horizon, county officials consider the hundreds of millions of dollars likely to rebuild or renovate the aging courthouse in downtown Cleveland.
It has not yet been decided whether a new courthouse should be built or the existing one should be renovated.
But District Councilor Michael Gallagher uncovered an option during a public safety committee hearing on Tuesday to control what he called “astronomical” costs of the project: reducing the total number of judges on joint pleas.
“We have a lot of seats in Cuyahoga County unlike any other county in Ohio,” he said. Gallagher also hinted at using Columbus for a possible reduction in the bank: “I can hardly believe we are holding on to what we have.”
Both new construction and renovation would “likely be considered too expensive” for taxpayers if the court is not streamlined in some way, Jeff Appelbaum, advisor to the justice center, said during the meeting.
While the expected price of a new or renovated courthouse has not yet been determined, a year-long estimate could theoretically put the cost at around half a billion dollars. A renovation, so Appelbaum on Tuesday, would be “far more expensive” than a new building. One reason is that the existing building would have to be upgraded under the American with Disabilities Act – a difficult and expensive proposition.
Appelbaum did not comment on Gallagher’s austerity idea. But he suggested other ways of cutting costs – all of which, according to Appelbaum, “will not be comfortable”.
One option could require the court’s 34 judges to share courtrooms or other rooms, a departure from the current practice of one full courtroom per judge. A second option could be to remove some of the judicial staff entirely from the courthouse and instead move them to a nearby office building – another departure from current practice.
Those two options – or Gallagher’s idea – would likely translate into significant savings in both the construction of a new courthouse and the annual running costs of the court. The district council is tasked with paying these bills and balancing the court’s costs with the remainder of the district budget. But Ohio law says that the state legislature – on the recommendation of the Chairman of the Ohio Supreme Court – determines the number of judges per county.
Any of the consolidation options are likely to spark a debate. Those talks could heat up from next month, when Appelbaum plans to release figures showing how much each judge costs taxpayers annually, and the possible construction of new courtrooms.
This reveal will come during a meeting of a 12-person steering committee formed three years ago to jointly determine the future of the Justice Center, built in 1976, which houses the courthouse, prison and other criminal justice services. Plans for a new stand-alone prison are progressing, but plans for the courthouse are just beginning.
Administrative Court and Administrative Court Chairman Brendan Sheehan, in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer on Wednesday, was concerned about premature discussion among councilors before the Steering Committee had a chance to interfere. (Both he and Gallagher are members of the steering committee.)
“It’s shocking to me – when we’re all partners – that they just drop bombs without anyone else being able to communicate or speak,” Sheehan said.
Sheehan told cleveland.com that he had no position as to which of the three optimization options might be the best. He also questioned whether other cost-cutting measures unrelated to the physical space or the size of the bank might be viable. Sheehan said he needed to come to a final position in consultation with his colleagues.
“This is a complex discussion and there is no easy solution. And ultimately, each of our judges wants to do what’s right for the county and the county taxpayers, “Sheehan said, adding that he is” not looking for a fight. “
Sheehan did not say one way or another whether 34 judges is the right number for Cuyahoga County, calling it a “complex” issue that ultimately falls within the legislature’s purview. But he has come to terms with Gallagher’s raising the question.
“I don’t think Mike Gallagher has the authority to even question how many judges there are in the county,” Sheehan said. “It’s not his domain. It’s like saying: “District Waste” [too much] state funds. ‘ I have no right to say that. He doesn’t understand what the judicial system is about and to say that is ridiculous. “
One factor used in determining how many common causes a district should have is population. Cuyahoga County’s population is declining by approximately 1.26 million according to the 2020 US Census. The similarly large Franklin County has a booming population, with around 1.32 million residents (as of 2020).
Another measure is the number of criminal and civil cases filed per judge per year. Cuyahoga County’s average from 2011 to 2020 was 1,079 new submissions per year for each of its 34 judges. In Franklin County, which has 17 judges, the average was 1,380, according to Ohio Supreme Court data compiled by cleveland.com. That means Cuyahoga County judges would have to process nearly 28% more new filings per year to be on par with Franklin County’s judges.
But Sheehan warned that such comparisons are not realistic, and neither are apples to apples.
One key difference, he said, is the use of unelected judges in Franklin County to conduct civil cases. In Cuyahoga County, only elected judges deal with such matters – essentially adding to the workload per judge.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer is the executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, which represents judges across the state in legislative and other matters. In an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, he said that analyzing the legal workload is more complicated than it seems.
He agreed with Sheehan that using judges skewed the comparison – and that, in his opinion, using judges for litigation is not necessarily good because they are not directly accountable to voters.
Pfeifer put the matter in a nutshell: Maybe Cuyahoga County doesn’t have too many judges. Maybe it’s because Franklin County doesn’t have enough.
Pfeifer also noted that Cuyahoga County judges process largely more applications per year than the national average. Ohio’s average filings per common pleading judge was 861 from 2011 to 2020 – compared to Cuyahoga 1,079, according to court data.
In addition, Pfeifer and Sheehan emphasized how the effects of COVID-19-induced changes in legal process could affect the space requirements of a future courthouse. The continued use of remote negotiation, for example, could result in a faster settlement of the case so that each judge can do more work.
Either way, Pfeifer said, the debate over the cost of a new courthouse in each district often leads to political disputes over the appropriate number of judges and, in some cases, years of hostility.
Or tensions could eventually ease as planners and district officials work together to determine the needs of a new courthouse, he said. Eventually, if the number of judges is reduced, it would likely be accomplished through brain drain and vacant seats for retired judges.
Cuyahoga County is only “at the start,” said Pfeifer. “By the time you get to the finish line in a new courthouse … these things tend to come off.”