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Making Peace Outside the Courtroom

The roots of dispute resolution within the Ohio court system run deep. Its creation has allowed big and small cases to be settled peacefully without stepping foot inside a courtroom.

Image of two hands shaking over top of four people looking out of an office window overlooking a downtown city

Aringing phone in the middle of the night would awaken Judith Cook with dread. Her son’s ex-girlfriend would be on the other end of the line, and would breathe into the phone and hang up.

Her son wasn’t even living there at the time and, worse, her husband had to get up at 5 in the morning and go to work.

So Cook filed a complaint and subpoenaed records from the phone company to prove the woman was making the harassing calls.

Unsure of where the case would go, her boss, Shirley Cochran, recommended a night prosecutor program in downtown Columbus.

The program turned into a form of mediation, an attempt to bring people together, resolve their disputes in a congenial manner, without having to go through the rigors of a court proceeding.

It was there where Cook faced her son’s ex-girlfriend.

“They were able to sit down and, number one, explain to her that calling in the middle of the night was a stupid thing to do,” said Cochran. “Number two, it wasn’t even being effective because she wasn’t bothering the guy she was ticked at. He wasn’t even living there.”

The calls stopped.

Cook’s story served as one example of how Ohio emerged as a national leader in court-connected dispute resolution options.

The Night Prosecutor Program, started in the 1970s by John Palmer, a law professor at Capital University Law School, and Columbus City Attorney James Hughes, was a hit from the beginning.

Ohio State Professor Nancy Rogers discusses the evolution of dispute resolution in Ohio.
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The program operated at night with law students working under faculty supervision. Generally, the disputes involved low-level offenses and the parties usually knew each other. During the first year, approximately 4,000 cases were mediated with a 97 percent success rate.

In the early 1980s, Ohio courts were already performing dispute resolution, which they called settlement conferences. Chief Circuit Mediator Robert Rack was working in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He started hearing pre-argument conferences in Cincinnati after the court’s chief judge suggested it as a solution to rising caseloads. The Sixth Circuit established a Pre-Argument Conference Program on a trial basis in 1981 and implemented the permanent program in 1983.

In 1986, Settlement Week began in Columbus, through the efforts of James Readey, president-elect of the Columbus Bar Association, and Harold Paddock, chair of the Columbus Bar Association Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee, and a court referee.

The Wall Street Journal sent a reporter to the first settlement week. Afterward, delegations from Texas came up to observe. Eventually, South Carolina, Montana, and several other states and localities instituted their own settlement weeks, using the Columbus program as a model for their processes and forms.

Based on the success of three civil mediation pilot projects in Stark, Montgomery, and Clinton counties, the Supreme Court of Ohio received nearly $1 million for the 1998-2000 biennium from the General Assembly to establish additional court-based mediation programs and to further the research on institutionalizing mediation in Ohio's courts.

This ‘Dispute Revolution’ documentary takes you through the history of Ohio being at the forefront of dispute resolution as a means of settling cases.
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The Supreme Court Committee on Dispute Resolution selected 12 sites from 45 applicants to participate. The general goal of the research project was to expand upon the preliminary data, which strongly suggested that providing court-based mediation services is both desirable and effective as a case-flow management tool.

In 2001, the National Uniform Mediation Act was approved by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws as a result of negotiation and rewriting from the American Bar Association’s task force, which was created by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). The Ohio act was passed by the Ohio General Assembly in 2005, and was similar to the national act.

“Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer requested that I be appointed by the governor to be a uniform commissioner,” said Nancy Rogers, former member of the Ohio Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Dispute Resolution. “For years, the chief justice came to meeting after meeting in which we heard from people all over the country and drafted what was ultimately the Uniform Mediation Act.”

Landmark Cases
The recent Dispute Resolution Conference at Ohio State University featured nationally acclaimed speakers, including a federal judge making headlines for a case involving the opioid addiction crisis.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster speaks about the benefits of dispute resolution.
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Judge Dan Polster sits on the federal bench in the Northern District of Ohio. He’s charged with resolving more than 400 federal opioid lawsuits but he says he’s not overwhelmed with the cases.

Polster is a big fan of solving high-profile cases with dispute resolution.

In 2016, he presided over settlement talks involving a lawsuit filed by the family of a Cleveland boy shot and killed by police.

“I have no idea what the jury would’ve done,” Polster said. “I know it would’ve torn the community apart because people would’ve taken sides.”

Additionally, he used dispute resolution in resolving a fight between the city of Cleveland and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio over planned protests during the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Cleveland streets were peaceful during the event.

“If I can help them resolve their legal disputes so there’s no winners, no losers. They may not get everything they want but something that they want," Polster said. "The other side gets something that they want and they both go on with their life. I think I matter. I’ve done something important.”