COLUMBUS — Greene County will not have to pay attorney fees and expenses incurred by Probate Court Judge Tom O’Diam during a legal battle about a courtroom, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In a 5-2 vote, the court rejected O’Diam’s request for a writ of mandamus, which would have forced the county to pay more than $66,000 to cover O’Diam’s legal expenses as he, the county, and the two common pleas court judges disputed who has control over courtroom 3.
In writing the opinion for the majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine said O’Diam’s inherent authority as a judge doesn’t allow him to avoid the statutory process.
” … the General Assembly has passed a set of statutes prescribing a process for all county officials, including judges, to follow in obtaining outside legal counsel. The judge did not follow the statutory process, and we have no reason to think that there is any constitutional problem with the statutory process. As a consequence, he is not entitled to compel the county to pay for his lawyer. We deny the writ of mandamus.”
DeWine was joined by fellow Justices Maureen O’Connor, Sharon L. Kennedy, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart in siding with the county.
O’Diam sought outside legal counsel because of a potential conflict of interest as the county prosecutor is required to represent county officials in legal issues.
In a dissent, Justice Judith L. French wrote that O’Diam took appropriate action.
“In remarkably broad strokes, the majority opinion rewrites our precedent. Judge O’Diam’s appointment of counsel was lawful, necessary, and reasonable. His appointed-counsel fees are also reasonable. I would grant Judge O’Diam’s request for a writ of mandamus to enforce his order requiring the board to pay his legal fees. Consistent with this decision, I would also grant his motion regarding court costs,” French wrote.
Justice Patrick F. Fischer joined French’s dissent.
The dispute began on March 5, 2018 when O’Diam issued an order requesting permanent designation of Courtoom 3 for probate court. A day later Judges Michael Buckwalter and Stephen Wolaver issued an order requesting the lower level of the courthouse to remain in their division’s exclusive control.
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. Courtroom 3 is used by the general division primarily for magistrate hearings, visiting judges, and grand jury proceedings.
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.
The Board of County Commissioners decided on March 8, 2018 to construct a courtoom for the probate court in the lower level of the Greene County Juvenile Building at 2100 Greene Way Boulevard, at a cost of around $30,000. O’Diam followed with an order demanding the commissioners to rescind their resolution.
The board filed a writ of prohibition with the supreme court March 15, 2018 against Judge Thomas O’Diam. The document seeks to prohibit the probate judge from: enforcing an order demanding control of Courtroom 3; enforcing an order demanding the commissioners rescind their resolution to build a courtroom in the juvenile court building; prohibiting the commissioners to enforce said resolution.
The supreme court entered judgment on the pleadings in favor of the board as to the courtroom-control issue thereby putting an end to O’Diam’s attempt to take control of Courtroom 3. It issued an alternative writ as to the part of the mandamus action that sought to compel payment of legal expenses and required the parties to submit evidence and briefs on the issue.
Wednesday’s judgment settled that.
“We are pleased with the decision on behalf of the taxpayers,” County Administrator Brandon Huddleson said. “It is the job of the commissioners to ensure money is properly spent and the Ohio Revised Code is followed.”
O’Diam had not read the decision as of press time and declined comment.
Contact Scott Halasz at 937-502-4507.