Q.: What happens in a common pleas court?
A.: Ohio’s courts of common pleas are trial courts, and there is one common pleas court for each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Although occasionally common pleas courts review decisions of arbitrators or administrative agencies, the vast majority of their work is in trying and settling cases.
Q.: What kinds of cases do common pleas courts hear?
A.: Each Common Pleas court has a number of divisions to hear various types of cases. The general division handles a wide variety of civil and criminal matters. The domestic relations division generally handles issues involving legal separation and divorce, including child support and custody matters that arise in context of the divorce or separation. The probate division handles matters involving wills, adoptions, guardianships and civil commitments of the mentally ill. The juvenile court handles matters of child neglect, dependency, delinquency, and matters involving custody and child support where the parents are not married.
Q.: How many judges does each common pleas court have?
A.: Each county court has a different number of common pleas judges, depending upon that county’s population. In some counties, one judge handles all the divisions. In other counties, a single judge may handle two or more divisions, and in the most populous counties, many judges share the workload of a single division. Judges in Ohio handle personal dockets, that is, when a new case is filed, it is assigned to a particular judge to be handled by him or her from beginning to end.
Q.: What kind of workload do Ohio common pleas judges have?
A.: In 2004, approximately 645,000 new cases were filed in Ohio’s courts of common pleas, and 380 common pleas judges worked to resolve them.
Q.: How are common pleas judges chosen, and what qualifications must they have?
A.: Common pleas judges are elected to six-year terms. To qualify for election or appointment to the bench, they must have been lawyers for at least six years.
Q.: What do common pleas court judges spend their time doing?
A.: Most of the work of a common pleas judge revolves around settling cases, that is, working with lawyers and litigants to achieve a compromise solution to the problem that brought them to court. In a criminal case, this settlement process is called plea bargaining. In a small percentage of cases, the parties cannot or will not compromise, and the case must be tried.
Q.: Do all common pleas court trials have juries?
A.: No. Trials can be held either to a jury or to a judge. In a felony criminal case, the defendant automatically gets a jury of 12 persons, and all 12 must agree to a verdict of guilty or not guilty. If a criminal defendant does not want a jury trial, and would rather have a judge determine the facts of the case, he or she must waive his jury right both in writing, and in open court. In a civil case however, a litigant is not automatically entitled to a jury. Rather, he or she must take the initiative to request a jury in writing. If a civil case is tried to a jury, eight jurors are chosen, and, in order to reach a verdict, at least six of the eight must agree.
Q.: If the trial is decided by a jury, what does the judge do?
A.: While juries decide disputed questions of fact, judges decide disputed issues of law. The judge must make sure the parties on both sides of the case follow proper trial procedure. The judge also must tell the jury about the law that applies to the case and explain how the jurors are to apply that law to the facts.
Q.: What does a judge do if there is no jury?
A.: When a judge sits without a jury, he or she decides the facts of the case as well as the law that applies to them.
Q.: What if I think an error was made in my case?
A.: You have the right to appeal to the district court of appeals that handles the county in which your case was tried.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). This article was prepared by (ret.) Judge Christine T. McMonagle, formerly of the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland.