Q: What is a municipal court?
A: Ohio’s municipal courts are trial courts located in counties and townships throughout Ohio. There are more than 120 municipal courts in Ohio.
Q: What kinds of cases do municipal courts hear?
A: Depending on the size of the municipality, a municipal court may have the following divisions that hear a variety of cases:
1) a civil division, which generally hears civil cases with less than $15,000 at issue;
2) a traffic/criminal division, which generally hears traffic offenses and misdemeanor criminal cases; and
3) a housing and/or environmental division, which generally hears civil and criminal actions to enforce local building, housing, health and safety codes in places intended for human habitation, and in some municipalities, evictions and landlord/tenant issues.
Q: How many judges does each municipal court have?
A: Each municipal court has a different number of municipal court judges, depending on a particular municipality’s population. In some counties, one judge handles all municipal court divisions. In other counties, one judge may handle two or more divisions. In the most populous counties, many judges share the workload of a single division. For example, the Franklin County Municipal Court has 14 judges in the general division who hear both civil and traffic/criminal cases, and one judge who hears cases in the environmental court.
Q: How are cases assigned to municipal court judges?
A: Each municipal court assigns cases differently. Generally, if there is more than one judge, each civil case is randomly assigned when the case is filed. For a criminal case, the on-duty judge will generally handle the defendant’s arraignment. At the arraignment (the defendant’s first appearance in court), the defendant is informed of the charges and enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. After the arraignment, the case is usually randomly assigned to one of the municipal court judges, who oversees the case to its conclusion.
Q: What kind of workload do Ohio municipal court judges have?
A: In 2014, more than two million new cases were filed in Ohio’s municipal courts. More than half of these new cases were traffic violations. The workload for a particular municipal court judge can vary widely. For example, in 2014, each municipal court judge in Cleveland Heights handled more than 20,000 cases, while the part-time judge in the Oakwood Municipal Court handled a little over 1,900 cases.
Q: How are municipal judges chosen, and what qualifications must they have?
A: Municipal court judges are elected to six-year terms. Municipal court judges must be attorneys with at least six years of experience in the practice of law.
Q: What do municipal court judges spend their time doing?
A: Municipal court judges spend much of their time hearing cases in court. In many jurisdictions, municipal court judges handle both misdemeanor and felony criminal arraignments. At the arraignment, the defendant is informed of the charges against him or her and is asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. In a criminal case, a municipal court judge conducts pretrial conferences and hearings, and rules on evidentiary and other pretrial motions. The municipal court judge also conducts criminal trials. In a civil case, a municipal court judge hears and rules on discovery and other pretrial motions, conducts pretrial conferences, facilitates settlement of the claims, and, if necessary, conducts civil trials.
Q: Do all municipal court trials have juries?
A: No. Juries hear some cases, but sometimes a case is brought before a judge, who decides the matter. In a misdemeanor criminal case, the defendant has a right to a jury of eight people, and all eight must agree to a verdict of guilty or not guilty. A criminal defendant who would rather have a judge hear his or her case must waive the right to a jury both in writing and verbally, in open court. In a civil case, a litigant (the person bringing the case before the court) is not automatically entitled to a jury. Rather, he or she must request a jury in writing and usually must submit a jury deposit. If a civil case is tried to a jury, eight jurors are chosen, and at least six of the eight must agree in order to reach a verdict.
Q: What if I think an error was made in my case?
You have the right to appeal to the district court of appeals that handles the county or municipality in which your case was tried. For a map of the Ohio courts of appeal covering each Ohio municipality, visit www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/JudSystem/districtCourts/
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by attorneys Douglas Riddell and Bridget Purdue Riddell of Riddell Law LLC.