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ACLU Says Ohio Mayor's Courts Lack Transparency

Downtown Canal Winchester
Columbus Neighborhoods
Downtown Canal Winchester

The ACLU of Ohio released a reportthis week about mayor’s courts, which the organization charges "are geared toward making money rather than delivering justice."

While most municipal courts cover multiple areas, mayor’s courts are limited to specific towns and cities. They handle mostly traffic violations and don’t have the same transparency laws as their larger counterparts.

“The mayor’s courts can be used to generate municipal revenue, and the court practices can therefore be more revenue-oriented,” says the report’s lead author Sri Thakillapati. “And there’s no record of them, there’s no record of coercive court practices, which is what I saw when I observed in courts.”

Thakillapati says those coercive court practices include discrimination on the basis of race and location.

“In almost every jurisdiction in big cities, so in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Akron, there was a disproportionately high number of black folks,” she says.

The ACLU says because mayor's courts are profit-oriented, most of the citations they issue are to non-residents. That's true in two Central Ohio towns analyzed in depth by the report, Canal Winchester and Pataskala. In Canal Winchester, 66 percent of citations were given to non-residents. In Pataskala, 59 percent were given to non-residents.

To that end, the ACLU of Ohio is recommending the elimination of those courts in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton and Summit Counties, as well as increasing state funding to municipalities so they don’t have to rely on the courts for revenue.

As for who will take up the courts’ caseload, Thakillapati says it’s not an issue. Only about 2 percent of cases in mayor’s courts actually go to trial.

“It’s less than a thousand, that’s throughout the whole state,” she says. “So this would be the trial burden that municipal courts would be picking up, throughout all 900 municipalities in Ohio.”

The Mayor's Association of Ohio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.