Who wields political power in Ohio? You may think of your mayor, county officials or even Gov. John Kasich. But county-by-county, probate judges are among the most powerful elected leaders in the state. So what does a probate judge do?
WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia recently asked Kent State University political science professor and attorney Chris Banks, who specializes in American politics and the judicial process.
He says in Ohio, probate judges are considered a limited jurisdictional court. They’re a division of the county common pleas court but have a whole different kind of caseload, including settling estates and wills, handling adoptions, issuing marriage certificates, appointing guardians and doing what’s called conservatory appointments, such as committing someone with mental illness to an institution if they’re considered a danger to themselves or others.
And there’s one other power that intrigues Banks. “The unusual thing about Ohio, they also have powers under a special statute to create and disband park districts, and appoint and remove commissioners.”
A court decision and a bill
Banks says there’s nothing in the law that prevents the judges from going further than just appointing the park commissioners, and that can bring them into conflict with those commissioners or township trustees.
He points to an Ohio Supreme Court case involving Geauga County, where the state high court ruled that probate judges have the power to levy fines on anyone interfering with a park district’s mission since that power is not specifically given to anyone else.
But a visiting judge disagreed with how that decision should be interpreted. So now, there’s a bill in the Statehouse that would codify a probate judge’s powers. Banks says, “The actual language is very controversial because it’s expanding in specific terms what probate…