Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Lorain County Judges Cannot Force Commission to Pay for Courthouse Security

Lorain County judges have no authority to order the county commissioners to pay for courthouse security upgrades because the funding is for the sheriff’s office to use and not the court, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court granted the Lorain County commissioners a writ of prohibition blocking orders from the common pleas court administrative judges mandating funds be directed to the sheriff’s office to enhance security. The upgrades were to secure the court’s adult-probation department located in the old Lorain County courthouse, and the probation department’s presentence investigation unit that is housed in a separate building.

Security Concerns Prompt Funding Request
While all the common pleas courtrooms were moved into the new Lorain County Justice Center in 2004, the old courthouse was renovated to house the probation department and county crime lab. In 2014, at the request of then-administrative Judge James Burge, the Supreme Court of Ohio Office of Court Security prepared a “physical-security assessment” (PSA) of the old courthouse and the building housing the presentence unit. The PSA identified a number of structural and security problems, and included the need for equipping a screening station with a metal detector and alarms for exterior doors.

Based on the PSA, the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office sent a letter to the commissioners estimating it would cost $396,000 annually to place deputies and screening equipment at the two buildings. The sheriff also suggested if the presentence unit was moved into the old courthouse, then it would cost $198,000 annually. The sheriff copied the common pleas court administrator and explained that his office would need additional funding to provide the security measures suggested in the PSA.

In August 2014, the sheriff’s office informed the court administrator it could implement the recommended measures for the rest of 2014 for about $125,000. Judge Burge ordered the commissioners to appropriate about $125,000 to the sheriff by Sept. 13.

Commissioners Resist Payment
The day before the deadline, the commissioners filed for the writ of prohibition with the Supreme Court to prevent the enforcement of Judge Burge’s order. In September Judge Burge was removed from the case when he was charged with a felony and replaced with the new administrative judge Mark A. Betleski.  Judge Betleski issued an order similar to Burge’s, but added the option of paying the money to the court, which in turn would pay the sheriff’s office. The commissioners resisted that order as well and amended their complaint to the Supreme Court to reflect the new judge and updated request.

In a  per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court indicated that to block the order, the commissioners must: show Judge Betleski would exercise judicial power such as holding the commissioners in contempt of court; the exercise of the power would be unauthorized by law; and they would be injured by the order and have no other legal way of resisting it.

Judge Betleski argued that he was not exercising judicial power but acting in an administrative role. The court rejected the argument, finding Judge Burge’s original order was not for the administration of the judicial process. Had Judge Betleski ordered the funds to be appropriated for the court to administer its own business, then he might be able to claim he was not exercising judicial power. However, since the orders were for sending money to the sheriff “the orders were attempts to resolve the informal dispute among the sheriff, the county commissioners, and the court” over the payments.

Since the sheriff’s department had not sued the commissioners, the court found there was no actual legal controversy between the two offices that could be heard by the judges. The court ruled that the presence of a disagreement between the sheriff’s office and the commission about the amount of funding, absent a lawsuit, is not a legal controversy that would put the matter before the judges.

Judge Betleski also insisted the commissioners had another legal way to contest the order. He argued they could challenge the reasonableness of the appropriation by refusing to make it and challenging any contempt of court charge brought against them. Again the Supreme Court noted that since these were not orders for the county court to manage its own administrative expenses, the commissioners could not be held in contempt for refusing to appropriate  money to the sheriff.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French and William M. O’Neill concluded the judges had no authority to enforce the orders for additional funding.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in the judgment only.

2014-1586. State ex rel. Lorain Cty. Bd. of Commrs. v. Lorain Cty. Court of Common Pleas, Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-3704.

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