- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 7, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is pushing for a study of judges’ workloads at a time the number of cases on judges’ dockets is steadily declining in Ohio and nationally.

O’Connor told a gathering of judges in March the study was a proactive move at a time of a tight state budget, and a chance to explain the changing nature of the judiciary, according to written and recorded minutes of that meeting obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.

O'Connor, a Republican, said no sitting judges would lose jobs as a result. O'Connor will meet with a panel of municipal, common pleas, juvenile court and other judges June 30 for more discussion. A decision is probably weeks away. The court has set aside $250,000 to pay for such a study.

Competition from private companies offering mediation and arbitration services outside the courts is helping drive a 26 percent decline in Ohio judges’ caseloads since 2007, O'Connor said. Nationally, dockets shrink about 3.5 percent a year, she added.

Meanwhile, judges are working just as hard because of more and more specialized courts, O'Connor said. In such courts, judges spend extra time helping drug addicts, human trafficking victims, veterans and defendants with mental illness, among others.

“We cannot ignore the changing nature of our business whether it is the result of outside forces or internal demands,” O'Connor said at the March 10 meeting. “And we cannot act as if these forces are of no importance.”

There is “a powerful message to be told,” O'Connor said, “that you are working hard because you are required to do more things. You are now required to wear many hats.”

Many state court systems have done such studies to measure courts’ efficiency in a time of tight budgets, according to the National Center For State Courts.

The country’s opioid epidemic, which kills about eight people a day in Ohio, is having a major impact on workloads as judges deal with the impact of addiction, said Michael Buenger, the Ohio Supreme Court’s administrative director. For example, 75 percent of children removed from homes in some counties are taken because of their parents’ drug abuse, he said.

Juvenile court judges must then oversee those children until proper placement is found, Buenger said.

Paul Pfeifer, the head of the state judicial agency, is skeptical of the proposal. He told O'Connor at the March 10 meeting that judges won’t like it and will question the merits.

Pfeifer, a former Supreme Court justice and a fellow Republican, also said fears of cutbacks from lawmakers questioning judges’ reduced caseloads are overblown.

“My view is once it’s done, it’ll go on the shelf,” Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, said at the March meeting.

Judge Joyce Campbell runs two specialty courts in Fairfield in suburban Cincinnati, one for people with severe mental illness, the other for repeat drunk drivers. Even with caseloads down, she spends far more time with individual cases today than when she went on the bench in 1999, sometimes seeing the same defendants weekly for a year.

“Probably 85 percent of my time as a judge, I’m a social worker,” said Campbell. “I’m dealing with drugs and alcohol and poverty and broken homes and broken people.”

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins

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