Commentary

02.22.18

What is a Mayor’s Court?

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A mayor’s court is a local-level court that hears cases about traffic violations, minor misdemeanors, and other offenses that cannot result in jail time, and they only operate in Ohio and Louisiana. In Ohio, someone does not have to be a judge, or even have a law degree, to hear cases in mayor’s courts. In most mayor’s courts, the mayor of the town and/or a magistrate who is appointed by the mayor or by city council hears cases.

 

How many mayor’s courts are in Ohio, and where are they located?

Ohio has 297 mayor’s courts and they operate in 64 of our 88 counties. In 2016, more than 1 out of every 6 traffic tickets were issued in towns with a mayor’s court. Curious about where they are specifically? The Supreme Court of Ohio’s annual report on mayor’s court has a comprehensive list.

Are mayor’s courts different than other kinds of courts?

Yes! Mayor’s courts are different than municipal or community courts in three important ways:

  1. The education requirements for mayors and magistrates who hear cases in mayor’s courts are meager. Mayors do not need any kind of college or even high school degree to hear cases. Magistrates must have a law degree and have practiced law in Ohio for at least three years. To qualify, both mayors and magistrates only need to complete six hours of training the first year they conduct court, and three hours every year after. This is a grossly insufficient amount of education for court officers who make decisions that affect people’s bank accounts and their ability to drive legally, which impact every aspect of their lives.
  2. There is very little regulation and oversight of mayor’s courts. Judges in all other Ohio courts must follow best practice guidelines set by the Supreme Court of Ohio and are answerable to the public that elects them. Mayor’s courts are regulated by the Ohio state legislature; passing laws to make sure that mayor’s courts are acting fairly requires a coordinated political effort by a majority of the legislature, which can be hard to accomplish.
  3. Mayor’s courts are not courts of record, which means that what happens in the court is not recorded by a stenographer or by audio or video recording. These records are important because they document whether people are getting fair and unbiased hearings. Because there are no records of what is said in mayor’s courts, mayors, magistrates, and prosecutors can use unjust practices to coerce people into guilty and no contest pleas.

Are mayor’s courts fair?

Decades of research on the court system in the United States has found systematic differences in how courts treat poor people and people of color. People with limited means and people of color plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit more often, are convicted of crimes more frequently, and are sentenced to harsher punishments than middle class and white people. The ACLU of Ohio’s investigation has found that mayor’s courts are also biased and may be even more unfair than municipal and community courts. This is because the decision a mayor or magistrate makes about a case is directly tied to the revenue (money) collected by the town. If defendants are found guilty of the offense for which they are charged, they have to pay fines and court costs which go to the town.

Mayor’s courts produce a fundamental conflict of interest between the mayor’s role as a financial officer for the town and their role deciding cases that financially benefit the town. The use of these courts to make profits for the town encourage profit-oriented policing that lead to extremely high rates of citations. In 2016, almost half a million Ohioans had their licenses suspended for not paying their fines or appearing in court.

What problems appear in mayor’s courts?

Through our investigation, we observed that:

  • Magistrates and mayors hear cases at a fast pace and they often rush people into pleading “no contest” or “guilty” and do not give due consideration to people’s explanation of their case when they plead “not guilty.”
  • There is no one to advise or speak on behalf of the defendant unless the defendant hires their own lawyer. This helps mayor’s courts pressure defendants into pleading guilty or no contest, even if they are not guilty of the charges against them.
  • Mayor’s courts criminalize people simply because they cannot afford to pay their tickets. Court officials rarely assess people’s ability to pay their fines or offer non-monetary options for restitution. This leads to people amassing additional citations and charges that they cannot pay, losing their driver’s licenses, and even going to jail because they are too poor to pay their initial ticket.

Mayor’s courts: Bird’s Eye View

Mayor’s courts demonstrate the grave problems caused by a court system that is geared towards making money rather than delivering justice. The motive to fund town budgets by collecting revenue through courts encourages profit-oriented policing and creates distrust between the police and the community. These practices place the greatest burdens on poor people and people of color. People accumulate debts that follow them throughout their lives, they lose their driver’s licenses and cars, and they even go to jail because of the predatory conduct encouraged by a profit-oriented criminal justice system.

 

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