Ohio Supreme Court rules in Greene County dispute with judge

The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Greene County commissioners over the battle for use of Courtroom 3 in the historic courthouse in downtown Xenia.

In their decision filed May 7, Ohio Supreme Court justices granted commissioners’ request to prevent Greene County Probate Judge Thomas O’Diam from enforcing his order for exclusive use of the third courtroom in the courthouse basement.

The court’s decision is based partly on a directly opposite order from Greene County general division Judges Stephen Wolaver and Michael Buckwalter.

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

The Ohio Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether the county must pay for O’Diam’s legal expenses in this case.

The total cost to Greene County is not yet known, but previous estimates put the total cost at $150,000 to cover legal counsels for all the parties involved. 

“We hold that a judge does not have inherent authority — and thereby lacks jurisdiction — to issue an order allowing him to take control of courthouse space when the space is already under the control of another court, or a different division of the common pleas court,” the state’s highest court’s opinion reads.

The justices cited decisions from previous cases in which a judge sought control and use of courthouse space, but noted the lack of case law establishing what should happen when there are two competing orders from judges over the same courthouse space.

“That fact distinguishes this case from prior inherent-power cases, inasmuch as Judge O’Diam cannot claim authority that supersedes that of the court’s general division — any more than the general-division judges can issue orders that supersede Judge O’Diam’s authority as probate judge,” their decision reads.

The decision concludes a dispute that started in 2017 when O’Diam raised security, safety and logistical concerns with his current courtroom. All sides agreed that O’Diam’s courtroom is too small and there are security concerns, but the judges could not agree on the remedy.

Courtroom 3 is currently used by the prosecutor’s office for grand jury hearings and to accommodate the overflow of civil, domestic and criminal cases in the general division.

O’Diam wanted Courtroom 3 to be designated as the probate division’s space for exclusive use three days a week, while Judge Wolaver argued to maintain control over the courtroom and move O’Diam’s operations to other spaces in the courthouse or to the juvenile justice center.

The impasse led to the judges issuing the competing orders in March 2018 to the county commission, and commissioners voting to resolve the issue by renovating space in the basement of the county’s juvenile justice center and move the probate court’s operations there.

O’Diam’s attorney, Kathleen Trafford, responded to the Dayton Daily News’ request for comment with a lengthy statement, saying her client is disappointed but “respects and will abide by the decisions.”

Trafford said O’Diam’s hearing room “is still grossly inadequate with serious safety, security and capacity concerns,” while Wolaver and Buckwalter control all three full-sized courtrooms in the courthouse.

“This new ‘control’ standard is a departure from prior precedent in that it eliminates the need for the court in control to show that it actually needs and uses the courtroom for its essential judicial functions and eliminates the opportunity for the asking court to show that it has the greater need to use the courtroom,” Trafford said.

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Trafford said her client sought to show that Courtroom 3 “could be better utilized with a structured, shared schedule between the probate division and general division of common pleas court.”

Messages were left seeking comment from the county’s attorney, Dawn Frick.

Five of the Ohio Supreme Court justices concurred in the decision, while Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Michael P. Donnelly concurred in part and dissented in part. 

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