Mahoning judges deal with heavy caseloads

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“Backlog” is kind of a bad word around the courthouse.

There are natural time tables and steps to be followed to ensure justice is served, which is why it takes a little longer for some cases to clear the docket.

So is it a backlog or business as usual at Mahoning County Common Pleas Court?

When looking at the case numbers for the five Common Pleas judges, Judge Scott Krichbaum is proud to point out his court is the most efficient month to month. At the end of June, Krichbaum’s court had 385 open criminal and civil cases combined.

The next lowest is Judge Lou D’Apolito’s court at 530. The three others, Judge John Durkin, Judge James Evans and Judge Maureen Sweeney, each have more than 600 cases on their dockets.

“You have to tend to the business at hand at the time it is at hand and you have to be properly prepared,” Krichbaum said.

Each judge sets their own court schedule, and cases are assigned at random to one of the five, so each court takes on an almost equal number of new cases each year. Krichbaum said the judges get about 300 or 400 criminal cases per year and there is only 50 weeks to hear them all, noting trials take a week or two to complete.

There are lots of criminal cases, but the bulk of the docket deals in civil suits, such as foreclosures and civil protection orders. Judge Durkin said 10 years ago, restraining orders were dealt with at the municipal court level.

In addition, Krichbaum said there’s a natural timeline built into those types of cases, and it could take six to nine months before someone ever sets foot in his courtroom.

“So the first time that our court administrator can set an event is probably four to six months down the road, so you have that automatic backlog,” Judge Durkin said.

Durkin, who is the administrative judge, just wrapped up a jury trial on Friday and started a new one Monday morning.

Every court has cut its caseload drastically in the past six years thanks to a drop in foreclosure filings, the addition of magistrates, and recommendations in a March 2007 report from the Ohio Supreme Court, which reviewed case flow management and operations in Mahoning County.

“And I think it was a conscious effort on every judge here to take a look at what we do, and how we do it, because we are constantly striving to improve the administration of justice,” Durkin said.

Swift, efficient justice is important, but Judge Evans points out there’s no prize for having the lowest numbers of cases left on the docket.

“It’s fairness and justice, nothing else. Because if I resort to the numbers, then you know what? I should get out,” Evans said.

The judges said civil and criminal case filings are at an all-time high, which will keep the courts busy for years to come. And they all said it’s impossible for any court to get its docket down to zero cases at month’s or year’s end because it’s a never-ending cycle, with necessary time tables and hurdles to clear.

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