The Third Branch
Several times during the year the production schedule of the Observer and the meetings of the City Council don’t match up for a timely article. In those instances I will use the opportunity to expand our awareness of other areas of Lakewood government. Meanwhile, as always, you can keep up on council actions by visiting the City Council thread on the Observation Deck.
Four weeks ago I received in the mail a summons to sign up for jury duty in the Lakewood Municipal Court. Up until now, I have never served on a jury in any court. But the notice did cause me to think about our local, third branch of government.
We have unavoidably watched in embarrassment at the antics of courts on television in the last few weeks. And, on a more serious level, a Grand Jury Foreman from the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court just issued a call for reforms in that court. How does our Lakewood Municipal Court react to the larger court system and how well is it serving us here in Lakewood?
Cases coming before the Court are divided into two broad categories. One includes traffic and criminal cases and the other involves civil cases. An annual report is issued by the court which gives statistics on the numbers and types of cases and compares those figures with the past year. For instance, speeding is the largest category of traffic violations with 1,308 tickets being written in 2005 and 1,482 in 2006. Driving on the sidewalk or curb has remained the same with one violation each year. On a serious note, operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol is a safety threat to all of us. Arrests have remained constant in the 250 per year range.
Lakewood Municipal Judge Patrick Carroll was asked if in his years on the bench he could discern trends which would help us understand our community better. Carroll offered the caution that in the case of drunken driving as an example that the laws defining it have changed so that comparisons or trends couldn’t be made. He emphasized that, nevertheless, he always treats cases individually and tries to find sentences that are appropriate for the community’s safety as well as for the driver.
Of particular note are two innovations that the Lakewood Court has undertaken in the last few years.
The first is Mental Health Court. The purpose of this program, according to the Court’s annual report, is to ensure that severely mentally ill persons charged with misdemeanor offenses will be identified, screened and linked to mental health services. The volume of such cases is too small for individual courts but this program brings judges and court staff together on a regional basis to share resources that will benefit the larger community.
The second innovation is the Felony Pilot Program. Most felony arrests (serious crimes) are made at the local level and must proceed from the local municipal court up through the county court system. This can be a cumbersome, time consuming, and expensive trek for both the accused and the community. It was one of the areas identified recently by Grand Jury Foreman John Zayac, Cleveland attorney and former Cleveland Councilman, in his reform recommendations.
In June, 2005 Lakewood and Shaker Heights municipal courts were selected to work with the Common Pleas Court to develop procedures to expedite felony cases more efficiently. At a recent Lakewood Democratic Club monthly meeting, Judge Nancy McConnell, who is the chief administrative judge of the common pleas court, spoke and in her remarks, she pointed out that because Judge Carroll was instrumental in establishing the Mental Health Court that Lakewood was selected as one of the courts for this pilot program.
This brief overview of some of the Court’s operations will be the start of more articles about this quiet, but equally important branch of Lakewood’s government.
And, now back to the reason I wrote about the court-my call to jury duty. I didn’t serve. There was no jury trial that day. One of the many outcomes of being called to jury duty is that for many reasons, you will not serve. Ever mindful and respectful of citizens’ busy schedules (even though jury duty is a civic responsibility) Clerk of Courts Terri O’Neill left a phone message the day before indicating that I wouldn’t be needed. I did, however, sign up for next month’s session so I hope to bring you an “insider’s” view of a trial.