Competition for a courtroom: Why Greene County judges are fighting for space

The lawyer for Greene County commissioners in their dispute with Judge Thomas O’Diam about county courtroom space wants Ohio Supreme Court justices to dismiss the case.

On behalf of the county commission, attorney Dawn Frick filed a motion for judgment on Monday with the state’s highest court, seeking to dismiss O’Diam’s complaint about use and control of a courtroom.

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O’Diam’s legal action seeks to compel county commissioners to comply with his order to move probate court to Courtroom 3, which is currently operated by general division judges Stephen Wolaver and Michael Buckwalter. Courtroom 3 is currently used for various purposes, including hearings presided over by visiting judges, civil case hearings and grand jury proceedings.

According to Frick’s motion, the dispute began in March 2017 when O’Diam brought up safety and logistical concerns with his courtroom to County Administrator Brandon Huddleson. Both sides agree that the probate courtroom is too small to accommodate large crowds that gather for adoption hearings and it’s located adjacent to where jail inmates are escorted into the courthouse.

Further safety concerns are the window and fire escape situated behind the judge’s bench, the only path to which is through the gallery where the audience sits.

A resolution could not be reached after several months of negotiations among the judges, Huddleson and the commissioners, which led to opposing orders being issued to the commission from O’Diam and the general division judges.

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The commission subsequently passed a resolution to move probate court and its operations out of the historic courthouse in downtown Xenia to a renovated space in the basement of the juvenile court building near Progress Drive. O’Diam rejected the idea when it was first proposed by Wolaver when both sides were working toward a resolution.

O’Diam’s writ of mandamus request seeks to nullify the commission’s decision and to be granted use and control of Courtroom 3.

Frick’s motion challenges whether O’Diam has “a clear right” for his demand to use Courtroom 3 and remove it from under the control of judges Wolaver and Buckwalter.

“Two competing courts have claimed a right to Courtroom 3, placing (commissioners) in an impossible position,” Frick’s motion reads. “(O’Diam) has sought to halt the Board of Commissioners’ attempt to resolve his space and security concerns because the Board of Commissioners’ solution is not his desired solution … There is no statutory obligation’ of the Board of Commissioners to provide (O’Diam) with what he wants, rather, they must only provide what he needs.”

Frick’s motion also seeks to dismiss O’Diam’s demand that the county pay for his attorney fees. County governments are obligated under Ohio law to pay for legal representation of government officers like judges when the case involves their governing duties. The commission offered to pay for O’Diam’s attorney fees, but his attorney, Kathleen Trafford, rejected the offer as too small.

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“(Commissioners) do not have a legal duty to provide indiscriminate amounts of taxpayers’ money to employ the counsel (O’Diam) wishes, rather only what is reasonable and necessary,” Frick’s motion reads.

A hearing has not yet been set in the Ohio Supreme Court. The costs to the county’s general fund to pay for the commission’s attorney fees as well as those of the general division judges and O’Diam’s is not yet known.

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