Municipal Court: Rating the judges (2009)
W. Dwayne Maynard. Photo courtesy Columbus Bar Association.
Call it the People’s Court. No, we’re not talking about the syndicated TV show starring the sassy Judge Marilyn Milian. This is Franklin County Municipal Court, which handles everything from small claims to a weekend’s worth of prostitution, drug dealing and traffic arrests. It’s often the only courtroom that drivers see if they challenge a traffic ticket. And Municipal Court judges can even perform marriages in a quick civil ceremony.
Muni court is an active place. In 2008, the court’s 15 judges—10 Republicans and five Democrats, each elected to six-year terms—handled almost 300,000 civil filings and criminal, traffic and environmental charges, making it the busiest court in Ohio. (It runs three specialty courts: environmental, mental health and prostitution. A fourth, drug court, begins in September.) It’s not that Columbus citizens are especially litigious or more prone to break Ohio law. Instead, the court has county-wide jurisdiction, offering services for all Franklin County communities, such as Bexley, Grove City and Hilliard, none of which have municipal courts of their own.
Yet, most cases escape public scrutiny. “We do our jobs without fanfare,” says Municipal Court Judge H. William Pollitt Jr. There is a consequence to having a low profile, however. Come election time—such as this November—voters may not know much about the judges they’re asked to elect.
Enter the 2009 Preference Poll conducted by the Columbus Bar Association (CBA), which claims 5,000 area attorneys as members. The survey asks attorneys who do business in Municipal Court to grade the judges on a five-point scale in five areas: objectivity, judicial temperament, legal knowledge, sentencing and timeliness.
The poll is made available to the media and voters who call before an election. It’s one of the tools the bar uses when it evaluates candidates. But several judges question whether attorneys use the poll to get even following an unfavorable courtroom outcome. Plus, participation appears to be dwindling: 423 Columbus Bar attorneys voted in this year’s poll, as compared to 695 in 2003. (The current survey reflects the CBA’s first attempt with online polling.)
Judicial opinions about the poll vary according to how the judges are rated, says Kathy Wiesman, assistant to executive director Alex Lagusch and director of the Columbus Bar’s publications. “Judges who get high ratings love the poll,” she says. “Judges who don’t get high ratings don’t like the poll.”
“It’s a popularity contest,” Pollitt says, “but I’d rather have people like me than not like me. It wouldn’t make me change the way I do things.”
Still, lawyers who frequent muni court say the survey can reflect popular opinion among attorneys. “When you consistently see negative results, at least from the lawyers’ perspective, that judge might not be doing a very good job,” says defense attorney Sam Shamansky. He adds, “Personally, I think we have a really great bench. . . . There’s not a stinker among them.” In fact, the average overall score is 3.8 (four means “generally strong”), with nearly all grading out as “acceptable” or better.
But some judges are better than others. Here are the rankings, from best to worst.
The Best (tie)
H. William Pollitt Jr.
At 6-foot-2, H. William Pollitt Jr. is a big man—as big as an Ohio State linebacker. In fact, he played for the Buckeyes under Coach Woody Hayes while earning a degree in education in 1970. Pollitt was on Ohio State’s 1968 national championship team, and he credits Hayes for helping him get into law school.
But Pollitt doesn’t fit the stereotype of the blowhard or stuffy judge. He talks rather softly. He owns neither ties nor watches. The black robe he wears usually covers a golf shirt. A picture of the Harley-Davidson he once owned sits on the desk in his office. On the wall is a photo of Jackie Gleason (who he considers a comic genius) golfing with Arnold Palmer.
“This is a great job,” he quietly says. “Anybody who doesn’t like this job has a problem.” What Pollitt likes best is the briskness of the court. There can be 80 people in his courtroom on busy days. “I like the pace,” he says. “I like the chaos. I consider myself a people person. I play better to a crowd.”
Pollitt says he has an open-door policy at the court so that attorneys who disagree with a decision can talk to him about it. He’s respectful to new attorneys, pointing out missteps in the privacy of his chamber. “I have no visions of grandeur,” he says. “If you want to talk to me, I’ll talk to you.”
But that doesn’t mean Pollitt has lost any of his linebacker toughness. Attorneys know if their client is found guilty of using a vehicle for personal harm, Pollitt is going to send him to jail. Defendants routinely face jail sentences for stealing from an employer, habitual stealing or assaulting a child. But Pollitt will try to structure any sentence around a convicted defendant’s work schedule. “I don’t want them to lose their jobs,” he says.
Brad Koffel says those are positions defense attorneys can deal with. “Every judge has a personal and professional philosophy on the bench,” says Koffel, who practices regularly in muni court. “They have different opinions on jail, whether to impose it, whether a little jail term is appropriate or a bigger jail term is appropriate. They all have different opinions on probation.” One of the responsibilities of an attorney is to prepare a client for each judge’s disposition. “It’s an unwritten rule: You prepare each client accordingly.”
And that, says Pollitt, is as it should be. “You have 15 judges here, with 15 different ways of doing things,” he says. “At the end of the day, we all get to the same point. We all make sure justice is done.”
Pollitt is unopposed in his bid for reelection this November, but at age 61, he acknowledges there’s a chance he won’t serve all six years of another term. “You never say never,” Pollitt says, “but it’s doubtful.”
H. William Pollitt Jr.
Education: BS, Ohio State, 1970; JD, Capital, 1974.
Life before the bench: In private practice for four years; served as senior assistant prosecutor for the city of Columbus for 18 years; referee for Upper Arlington’s juvenile diversion program for nine years.
Political side: Appointed to bench in 1996. Elected in 1997 and 2003. Up for reelection in November. A Republican.
High score: 4.4 in objectivity, judicial temperament and sentencing.
Low score: 4.2 in legal knowledge.
One morning in mid July, a young Columbus-area woman arrested for driving on a suspended license appears in Franklin County Municipal Court. She’s dressed for the occasion in a colorful strapless sundress with a jagged hemline. She has no attorney.
At first glance, Judge Anne Taylor appears to let the defendant off easy when she approves a plea agreement that the young woman worked out with the prosecutor. The driver faced six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, but Taylor imposes a $50 fine, charges $100 in court costs and drops an arrest warrant.
It’s not until she begins to speak directly to the defendant that courtroom observers see Taylor’s style of emphasizing the positive that earns her high marks in the Columbus Bar Association poll. In a measured voice, Taylor respectfully tells the young woman that she’ll have to work directly with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles in getting her license reinstated.
Dealing with the BMV’s bureaucracy might be punishment enough, Taylor says outside the courtroom after the case. Instead of berating defendants who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, she compassionately points out their options when she can. “You just tell people that they have the skills and ability” to choose their own course, she says. “They’re the ones who have the keys to the jail.”
The judge is not so nice to everyone. She is especially hard on defendants who use vehicles as a weapon or commit violent acts. One defense attorney says she can set some outrageous bails.
Koffel says a bad judge is emotional and unpredictable on the bench, something Taylor is not. “I recognize that in a busy, confusing courtroom, it’s important for me to communicate in a way people understand,” she says.
Taylor says she loves her job, particularly when an attorney makes an argument that challenges conventional thinking. “It allows me to work through new legal issues,” she says.
Like Pollitt, Taylor is unsure whether she’ll serve a full six-year term after the November election (she’s unopposed). “I’m a happy, healthy 58-year-old, but I’m not going to undermine my reputation by staying too long,” she says.
Education: BS, Ohio State, 1973; JD, Capital, 1979.
Life before the bench: In private practice for 11 years and worked with the Ohio State Legal Services Association for two years after law school.
Political side: Elected in 1991, 1997 and 2003. Up for reelection in November. A Democrat.
Misc.: Will be the longest serving judge at muni court once Judge Janet Grubb retires on Dec. 31.
High score: 4.5 for judicial temperament.
Low score: 4.3 for objectivity, legal knowledge, sentencing and timeliness.
Overall score: 4.4
Certainly, one of the court’s 15 judges had to be last in the CBA poll. But to make matters worse for Salerno, her overall score of 2.7 (on a 5-point scale) is the lowest any Municipal Court judge has received in the eight surveys taken since the early 1990s. (The Columbus Bar has been conducting similar polls for 35 years, but Wiesman says results before 1993 were not immediately available.)
In fact, she ranked last (or tied for last) in all five categories.
Some might expect Salerno to be crestfallen over her rating. If she is, it doesn’t show. Instead, she analyzes the poll’s results, pulls out the positives and continues doing her job. The Columbus Bar says a rating of 2 indicates a jurist is weak in a category, while 3 is acceptable. “If you look at the numerical system, I’m an acceptable judge,” says Salerno, making a bit of a stretch by rounding up. “I know I work hard every day to be the best judge I can be and to serve the people of Franklin County.” Some defense attorneys add that Salerno looks beyond the facts of a case to see if a guilty defendant can benefit from creative sentencing.
If the poll is a hurdle for Salerno to overcome, it won’t be the first. Consider Salerno’s background. A Youngstown native, she is the daughter of a stay-at-home mom and a firefighter who eventually opened an Italian bakery. Her father died during her first week of law school at Ohio State. Three years ago, Salerno was diagnosed with breast cancer. Salerno says her prognosis is good, but she’s still in treatment. “Survivors are generally on a medicine regime for five to 10 years after diagnosis,” she says.
While serving in the Ohio House of Representatives from 1995 to 2002, she believes she built a reputation for fighting for children; one of the bills she sponsored, homicide by child abuse, became a model for similar legislation nationwide and resulted in her appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show nine years ago.
Since becoming a judge in 2005, she has caught the attention of the media. In 2007, then Dispatch columnist Ann Fisher criticized her for “grandstanding” during an election year by lecturing Ohio State University football player Antonio Henton at his arraignment on a charge of soliciting. The previous year, The Other Paper, a sister publication of Columbus Monthly, reported that a rift was growing between Salerno and fellow muni court Judge Harland Hale over her work ethic. Today, Hale says there was “no substance to that story. There never was a rift. I have no problems with anyone, anywhere.”
Education: BA, Youngstown State University, 1979; JD, Ohio State, 1982.
Life before the bench: In private practice for 21 years. Served in the Ohio House of Representatives, representing the 23rd District, for seven years. An administrative law judge with the State Personnel Board of Review for two years.
Political side: Appointed and elected in 2005. Reelected in 2007. Up for reelection in 2013. A Republican.
High score: 3.0 for sentencing.
Low score: 2.4 for legal knowledge.
Kathy Showalter is a freelance writer.
Education: BS, Ohio State, 1983; JD, Capital, 1987.
Life before the bench: Served as Municipal Court clerk for eight years. Served as chief deputy muni court clerk, a law clerk in the Ohio Court of Claims, a bailiff and law clerk in Franklin County Common Pleas and an assistant prosecutor in Franklin County. Also a lawyer in private practice.
Political side: Elected in 2003. Up for reelection in November. A Republican.
Misc.: Presides over new prostitution court and shares duties with VanDerKarr in the drug court.
High score: 4.5 for judicial temperament.
Low score: 4.0 for legal knowledge.
Education: BA, Miami University, 1979; JD, Capital, 1982.
Life before the bench: Worked in the Franklin County prosecutor’s office for 15 years.
Political side: Appointed and then elected in 1995. Reelected in 2001 and 2007. Up for reelection in 2013. A Republican.
Misc.: Oversees mental health court and shares duties with Herbert in the new drug court.
High score: 4.3 for judicial temperament, sentencing and timeliness.
Low score: 4.2 for objectivity and legal knowledge.
Education: BA, Bates College (Maine), 1971; JD, Ohio State, 1976.
Life before the bench: Worked as a prosecutor in the Columbus City Attorney’s office, in the Ohio attorney general’s consumer protection division and with the Franklin County public defender’s office.
Political side: Elected in 2003. Up for reelection in November. A Democrat.
Misc.: Says he is considered the “tech guru” among the muni court judges.
High score: 4.4 for timeliness.
Low score: 3.9 for sentencing.
Education: BA, Ohio State, 1979; JD, Capital, 1982.
Life before the bench: Private practice lawyer for 27 years, often representing clients in muni court.
Political side: Elected in 2007 to an unexpired term. Up for reelection in November. A Republican.
Misc.: Newest member of the court.
High score: 4.3 for judicial temperament.
Low score: 3.9 for legal knowledge.
Education: BS, Muskingum College, 1965; JD, Ohio State, 1968.
Life before the bench: In private practice, Brandt & Hull, for 29 years and served as mayor of Grove City, 1972 to 1980.
Political side: Appointed and elected in 1997 to an unexpired term. Reelected in 1999 and 2005. Up for reelection in 2011. A Republican.
Misc.: Oldest member.
High score: 4.0 for timeliness.
Low score: 3.7 for judicial temperament.
Education: BA, Otterbein, 1976; JD, University of Toledo, 1979.
Life before the bench: Worked in prosecutors’ offices in Franklin and Delaware counties; served as counsel for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and as an assistant to a magistrate in U.S. District Court in Toledo. Also a lawyer in private practice.
Political side: Appointed and elected in 2003. Up for reelection in November. A Republican.
Misc.: Oversees environmental court.
High score: 3.9 for judicial temperament, legal knowledge and sentencing.
Low score: 3.7 for timeliness.
Education: BA, Marietta College, 1971; JD, Capital, 1976.
Life before the bench: Staff attorney with the Franklin County public defender’s office, in private practice and a domestic relations referee with Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Political side: Elected in 1991, making her the longest serving judge in muni court. (Reelected in 1997 and 2003.) Plans to retire Dec. 31 to go into private practice, leaving an open seat. A Democrat.
High score: 4.1 for legal knowledge.
Low score: 3.5 for judicial temperament.
Education: BA, University of Wisconsin, 1986; JD, Ohio State, 1989.
Life before the bench: Worked as a Columbus assistant prosecutor, in the governor’s office, the Ohio attorney general’s office and as chief legal counsel for the Ohio Department of Liquor Control.
Political side: Appointed in 2003. Lost an election in 2003. Appointed again in 2004 to an unexpired term. Elected in 2005. Up for reelection in November. A Republican.
Misc.: The court’s administrative judge.
High score: 3.9 for timeliness.
Low score: 3.4 for sentencing.
Education: BA, University of Notre Dame, 1987; JD, Ohio State, 1996; MA, OSU, 1997.
Life before the bench: Practiced from 1997 to 2004 at Bricker & Eckler. Also worked at the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame, St. Stephen’s Community House in Columbus and Holy Cross Associates in Chile.
Political side: Elected in 2003. Up for reelection in November. A Democrat.
High score: 3.9 for judicial temperament.
Low score: 3.2 for sentencing.
Education: BA, University of Akron, 1980; JD, Ohio State, 1984.
Life before the bench: Carpenter, cabinet designer and union steward from 1973 to 1981. Five years as an assistant prosecutor in Franklin County. Six years as administrator of the Clients’ Security Fund of Ohio. Has taught at Columbus State Community College since 1987.
Political side: Appointed in 1994 to an unexpired term. Elected in 1995. Reelected in 2001 and 2007. Up for reelection in 2013. A Republican.
Misc.: Says he probably performs the most marriages in muni court.
High score: 3.7 for timeliness.
Low score: 3.0 for sentencing.
Education: BA, Miami University, 1991; JD, Ohio State, 1994.
Life before the bench: Worked in the Columbus City Attorney’s Office, the Franklin County prosecutor’s office and Franklin County public defender’s office.
Political side: Elected in 2005. Up for reelection in 2011. A Democrat.
Misc.: Youngest member.
High score: 3.7 for judicial temperament.
Low score: 3.1 for timeliness.
W. Dwayne Maynard
Education: BA, Brown University, 1980; JD, Ohio State, 1985.
Life before the bench: Worked with the Columbus City Attorney’s Office as director of its bad checks program and as an assistant prosecutor in its criminal division.
Political side: Appointed and then elected in 1993. Reelected in 1999 and 2005. Up for reelection in 2011. A Republican.
High score: 3.7 for judicial temperament.
Low score: 2.6 for timeliness.
This story appeared in the September 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.