XENIA — A third courtroom in the basement of the 116-year-old county courthouse is the center of a legal dispute amongst Greene County judges.
Matters came to a head when the board of commissioners passed a resolution March 8 to construct a courtroom for the county’s probate court in the juvenile court building down the street.
Litigation may still be pending or imminent, though, according to Probate Court Judge Thomas O’Diam, who said he would not comment further at this time.
The board received competing court orders March 5 and 6, one issued by O’Diam; the second issued by Judge Michael Buckwalter and Judge Stephen Wolaver of the general division of Common Pleas.
While O’Diam’s court order requested permanent designation of “Courtroom 3” for probate court, the general division judges requested the lower level of the courthouse to remain in their division’s exclusive control.
Courtroom 3 is used by the general division primarily for magistrate hearings, visiting judges, and grand jury proceedings.
According to O’Diam’s request, the probate court would use Courtroom 3 to conduct all of its hearings and trials on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The probate and general division would use a shared calendar to schedule the courtroom for Mondays and Fridays on a first come, first served basis.
O’Diam’s plan would allow a room on the second floor — “Room 16” — to be renovated by the commissioners as a hearing room for the general division.
Currently, probate court has a small hearing room on the first floor of the courthouse. O’Diam cited lack of adequate capacity as well as serious safety concerns for public and court personnel as reasons for the room’s inadequacies.
According to a letter from Xenia Fire Division Captain Brian Brennaman, capacity of the hearing room is 10 people plus the judge. Probate Court’s judgment entry notes that sometimes up to 30 people are in attendance at a hearing or trial.
The document also cited security deficiencies: The judge must pass through the gallery area to reach the bench at the opposite end of the hearing room. Directly behind the bench is a large window and fire escape platform. The courthouse entrance, security area and exit creates congested traffic. Persons entering and exiting the room often directly encounter criminal defendants being escorted in and out of the courthouse. The judge’s chambers are not attached to hearing room, which means he must pass through the area in his judicial robe.
“The lack of separation of the Probate Judge, Magistrate, court personnel and the public from criminal defendants is directly contrary to the recommendations in the Ohio Supreme Court’s Court Security Standards, and presents a serious risk to public safety,” the entry reads.
Records indicate parties met over the span of a year discussing the matters and various solutions, including moving probate court to Room 16 or to the juvenile court building at 2100 Greene Way Boulevard, or moving grand jury proceedings to the prosecutor’s office. The three judges could not reach an agreement.
In their court order, the general division referred to the 2008 remodeling of the lower area of the courthouse and the 10 years of financial maintenance of the area that followed.
“We cannot operate and serve our clients and other stakeholders without using Courtroom 3, and we cannot justify spending taxpayer dollars when the General Division already tapped that well in 2007,” the judges wrote to O’Diam.
“We do believe for the reasons noted herein, that for the historical needs and costs involved the General Division can manage the lower level with assured accommodation for all,” the document continues.
The judges could not be reached for comment, but E.J. Griffith, court administrator, said she was pleased with the decision on behalf of the general division.
“I am pleased that the Board of Greene County Commission has heard the concerns of Judge O’Diam and the probate court that its current facilities here in the courthouse are inadequate to serve the people of Greene County,” she said, “and that the board has chosen to provide new and better facilities to better service the people of Greene County, at the juvenile court building here in Xenia.”
In a March 5 letter, O’Diam requested the board of commissioners to fund outside legal counsel on his behalf in anticipated prosecution in case the commissioners denied his order.
Contact Anna Bolton at 937-502-4498 or follow @annadbolton on Facebook.