Despite controversies, mayor's courts are fixtures of small-town justice

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among these jurisdictions. 

The ways the 49 Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive is the focus of this series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. The series explores the diversity and ingenuity of these longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand collective thought and action to galvanize their revitalization. 

On a recent Tuesday night, with the temperature dropping in to the teens, dozens of people waited in line to get into the Elmwood Place Municipal Building. They had been summoned to mayor’s court to answer for a minor offense, plead their case, and -- usually -- pay a fine and put the matter behind them.

When the doors open, they are greeted by two village police officers. One checks names, the other runs a handheld metal detector over their person and advises them to remove their jackets. The court, held in the village council chambers, fills up with more than 50 people.

Signs posted on the wall advise of the expected court decorum: 
No Phones
No Smoking
Hats Off
Be Quiet
Be Polite
A prosecutor reads a blanket statement of rights to the entire room and court is under way, as it is on the second, third, and fourth Tuesday of every month in Elmwood Place.

The village of 2,000 people is not alone in practicing this version of local justice. At least 32 municipalities in Hamilton County hold mayor’s courts. They handle misdemeanors like speeding, failing to stop, and drunk driving.  They are a fixture of the county’s first-ring suburbs despite controversies and repeated attempts to abolish them.

They are something of an anachronism, a throwback to another time. Their origin dates to the early 19th century, when Ohio was a frontier. They are not courts of record, meaning there’s no court stenographer keeping a written record of the proceedings, nor any audio or video recordings.

Despite these quirks, mayor’s courts are entrenched in Hamilton County and Ohio. Statewide, there are more than 250 mayor’s courts. They provide a measure of local control over the enforcement of laws in small towns and improve safety, advocates say. They help enforce speed limits and sober driving. They also provide revenue to the budgets of small towns and villages, many of which are revenue-starved. And they take the burden of handling minor misdemeanor cases off of the county’s municipal courts.

“It would be tough on communities if they had a separate court,” says Greenhills Mayor David Moore. “It would take our police officers off the road to go to that court.”

Handling property violations, nuisance citations and other neighborhood issues are best handled locally, he says. “Other courts wouldn’t have the community’s best interests at heart when they’re resolving those cases,” he says “And it would be costly. They would have to expand the court system if they eliminated mayor’s courts altogether.”

Mayor’s courts are handled differently in every town. Mayors can preside over them if they complete a minimal six-hour training. But most turn the job over to a magistrate, who, while not a judge, is usually an experienced attorney. But disparities in the dispensation of justice have resulted in controversy over the years. A 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union was a scathing indictment of the mayor’s court system in Ohio. “A substantial proportion of mayor’s courts operate in ways that suggest they prioritize money over justice,” the report said.

The courts do provide a source of cash to towns, many of which get by on threadbare budgets. Some earned a reputation as speed traps set up solely to separate lead-footed motorists from their money and pad the town’s coffers. The most infamous local example is Arlington Heights, which, despite being one of the smallest municipalities in the county, had one of the busiest mayors courts in the state thanks to its police department enforcing the 55 mph speed limit on a short stretch of I-75 that passed through the village. Arlington Heights disbanded its police department in 2016.

Some embraced the reputation. Greenhills had an officer who was nicknamed “Radar Walt” for his proclivity with the electronic speed monitoring device. In an effort to get people to slow down on Winton Road, its police department went online to advertise its reputation for enforcing speed limits, Moore says. Busy Winton Road is a four-lane thoroughfare where the limit is 35 mph in the residential community. “We get people going 70 through there,” says Court Clerk Vonda Secoy.  

Moore says Greenhills takes in $60,000 to $80,000 annually in fines through its mayor’s court. He points out that it costs money to run them. The magistrates must be paid, as do other court personnel. Elmwood Place’s mayor’s court was staffed by a magistrate, a prosecutor, a clerk, four police officers, and a translator who speaks Spanish.

The ACLU investigation also found that mayor’s court justice could be discriminatory.  “The police and mayor’s courts in some jurisdictions cite and punish Black community members at disproportionately high rates when compared to white community members,” it said. The report called out towns around the state where it found that the proportion of citations issued to Black people was much higher than their Black populations, including in the Hamilton County municipalities of Amberley Village, Lockland, Norwood, Arlington Heights, and Fairfax.

“This suggests that there is racial disparity in who is stopped and ticketed in these municipalities,” the report said.

The history of mayor’s courts goes way back. They are rare in the United States. Ohio and Louisiana are the only states that have them. In fact, their beginnings are traced to Cincinnati in 1819. In 1905, they were formally codified into Ohio state law.

They have outlasted attempts to abolish them. There’s been efforts in the Ohio Legislature to eliminate them, but they’ve failed, as state lawmakers may have been reluctant to alienate small town mayors and other local office holders. Former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer urged the legislature to get rid of them, saying they presented a conflict of interest, as the person responsible for the town’s revenue, the mayor, also is responsible for the revenue-producing court.

But they survive, and in many towns they are as busy as ever. The village of Lockland heard 4,581 cases in its mayor’s court in 2022, more than one for every person in the town of 3,514. The city of Reading, population 10,600, heard the most cases in Hamilton County in 2022 – 4,605, according to statistics gathered by the Supreme Court of Ohio. (As an aside, the tiny town of Hanging Rock in southeast Ohio, population 204, holds the dubious honor of having the most mayor’s courts cases per capita – 1,193 total cases, or more than five per every Hanging Rock resident. U.S. 52 runs through the town for more than mile, and the stretch has been noted as a speed trap.)
In a few towns, mayor's court is no longer used for traffic offenses. In Hamilton County, a handful of towns no longer maintain their own police forces, but contract with the county sheriff’s office for law enforcement. In those communities, the sheriff’s deputies cite traffic offenses downtown to the county courthouse to be paid rather than to the local mayor’s court. That revenue then flows to the county’s accounts rather than the to the municipality where the offense occurred.  

In the village of Silverton, for example, mayor’s court now handles mainly delinquent tax cases and a few nuisance property cases, says Village Manager Jack Cameron. Traffic cases are sent downtown, as the village is patrolled by the sheriff’s office. The fines are paid to the county, and don’t wind up on Silverton’s balance sheet. “Our mayors court, for all intents and purposes, is kind of a nonevent, which is not a terrible thing,” Cameron says.

But in Lincoln Heights, which scrapes by on a budget of only $2.5 million, the arrangement has put a crimp in the village finances. Lincoln Heights is patrolled by the sheriff’s department, which earlier this year began citing traffic offenses to the county courthouse rather than to the village’s mayor’s court. “We’re not happy about that,” says Mayor Ruby Kinsey-Mumphrey.

She’s met with Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey about it, but the sheriff’s decision hasn’t changed. Kinsey-Mumphrey is so upset about it that she and the village council have considered finding other police services for the village.

Through a spokesperson, the sheriff said, “Prior to making this decision regarding mayor’s court, the Sheriff’s Office met with the Lincoln Heights Council on three occasions and clearly communicated with them our intent to follow Sheriff’s Office policy of not participating in mayor’s courts for any of our municipalities.”

Because of the paltry budget in Lincoln Heights, Mayor Kinsey-Mumphrey readily acknowledges the difference that revenue from mayor’s court can make in her community. But the revenue link in mayor’s courts around the state is at the heart of the controversies surrounding the courts. As the 2019 ACLU report said, “As local governments in Ohio look for ways to supplement their budgets, they often look to courts as sources of revenue. This creates perverse incentives for municipalities to balance their budgets through mayor’s court revenue.”

That same report offers several recommendations for reforming mayor’s courts. The first is for the Ohio General Assembly to restore state funding to municipalities. They were hit hard by changes to the state budget beginning in 2013, specifically the cuts to the Local Government Fund and the elimination of the estate tax. “The systemic underfunding of Ohio’s municipalities increases the pressure on mayor’s courts to generate revenue for their municipalities,” the report says.

The report also recommends increasing educational and procedural requirements for those running mayors courts, and giving the state Supreme Court disciplinary oversight of the local courts.

There’s been a few restrictions placed on mayor’s by the state legislature over the years. For example, second and third drunk driving citations now have to be heard in the county municipal court. But as a fact of life in the small towns in Hamilton County and around the state for more than 200 years, mayor’s courts appear to be here to stay.   

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.