Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

New Magistrates Changing Legal Course

As Ohio’s 64 newly-elected judges are getting increasingly comfortable with life on the bench after a couple months into their tenure, another group of legal professionals are in the midst of learning how to lead a courtroom for the first time.

The Ohio Supreme Court hosted 56 of its newest judicial officers as part of the annual magistrate’s orientation at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center.

“I know the challenges you will face. Each part – managing cases, writing opinions, scheduling hearings, and more – will test you every day,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a former probate court magistrate.

The three-day event – organized by the Court’s Judicial College – is constructed to help attendees evaluate and improve their decision-making and writing skills as the latest to join the ranks of approximately 850 magistrates statewide. It also provides the attendees an opportunity to meet their peers and learn how they operate across the state.

“It's really given me a chance to network, to find out what other magistrates are going through, what’s similar and what’s different,” said Jeffrey Uhrich, a magistrate for Richland County Common Pleas Court.

Unlike judges, magistrates are not elected. Instead, they’re appointed by a judge and operate under the supervision of that elected judge. The reasons they accept the positions can vary from a needed professional change to a situation that allows them to interpret the law as opposed to being advocates for their clients. Magistrates handle most types of cases in a specific court where cases can be appealed to a judge.

As part of their training, the new magistrates took part in trial practice exercises as they were put through real-life scenarios by veteran magistrates, who role-played during the mock trials, then assessed the performances. Unlike newly-elected judges who typically start their positions at the beginning of a new year following an orientation, magistrates are appointed throughout the year and many times spend anywhere from weeks to a year in their roles before their orientation.

“It’s been an interesting transition. I’ve been on the bench for about six weeks. So, I certainly wouldn’t say that it’s complete, yet, and I’m still acclimating to that experience, but I am the mother of three children, so I’m used to refereeing a little bit,” said Kara Stanford, a Trumbull County Family Court magistrate.

In magistrate hearings, it’s more common to see pro se litigants – a person representing themselves without the assistance of an attorney. Given their lack of legal expertise and understanding about courtroom procedure and decorum, their actions often bring about more disruptions – and even chaos.

“Maintain an even demeanor, a calm demeanor. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed around and don’t give into the arguments that may occur in the courtroom,” said Gail Baker, who’s served as a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court magistrate for the past 13 years. “Be consistent. Be independent. Errors are going to be made. Just learn to pick yourself up and keep going.”

These magistrates will continue their education throughout their tenure on the bench. Ohio magistrates must complete 40 hours of continuing legal education, including 10 hours of instruction offered by the Judicial College, every two years.