Sunday, October 13, 2002

The busiest judge in Ohio

John Rosmarin wins praise for fairness - and efficiency

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON — Most mornings, Judge John G. Rosmarin awakens around 5 a.m., early enough to shut off his alarm before it sounds.

He makes the five-minute drive to Hamilton Municipal Court and begins signing paperwork — no rubber-stamped signatures here — around 6:30, 90 minutes before most court employees arrive.

[photo] Judge John G. Rosmarin presides over Hamilton Municipal Court
(Glenn Hartong photos)
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He dons his black judge's robe and starts hearing cases by 7:30, before most businesses open.

Starting early — and returning to work many evenings and weekends — is the only way to operate when you're Ohio's busiest municipal court judge.

In 2000, the Hamilton court's per-judge caseload was the highest among the state's 121 municipal courts — and was more than double the state average, according to the Ohio Courts Summary. Even with help from a part-time magistrate, Judge Rosmarin sometimes sees upwards of 100 defendants in a single day.

“I've seen judges have busy dockets but I've never seen a judge work so hard; I don't think he can be matched,” says Wendell Meade, a 26-year police officer and former court-security supervisor. “Judge Rosmarin sees the gamut of criminal justice in one day ... He stays as long as it takes to get the cases done — and he walks out of there jovial. That's what amazes me.”

In contrast to some Columbus-area municipal judges, whose short work hours have been stirring controversy, Judge Rosmarin is famous for plowing through cases practically non-stop all day. He has a reputation for giving cases a fair — if quick — hearing. But the court's overloaded docket, which can exceed 20 pages and 200 cases on a typical day, usually means a long wait to appear in Courtroom A, where Judge Rosmarin presides, or Courtroom B, where a magistrate holds hearings.

“I think it's ridiculous. I waited an hour and a half to be told to come back in two weeks,” says Emilee Sutten, 21, facing charges from an automobile crash. “But I guess it's not really the judge's fault. He does get to the cases as quickly as possible; he told people to hush so he could get things done ... I just think they need to figure out a better way.”

One factor in the growing caseload: The city's crime rate is high for its size.

[photo] Judge, staff and prosecutors move things along efficiently in Judge Rosmarin's court.
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With a population of about 61,000, Hamilton has a per-capita crime rate “comparable to cities with a population over 250,000,” a police department crime-analysis report says. Zealous police enforcement coupled with economic hard times might be factors in that equation, officials said.

Jim Cooney, a 25-year Hamilton lawyer who sees Judge Rosmarin almost daily, says the court's high numbers “aren't artificially inflated by speeding tickets.” He has seen an increase in drunken-driving and domestic-violence cases.

“But despite the rush, my clients all feel like, in the end, the great majority feel they get a fair shake in this court.”

Meanwhile, some Franklin County municipal judges routinely leave work at 1 p.m.; nine of the 15 judges spend fewer than 30 hours a week at the courthouse, the Columbus Dispatch has reported, noting that no laws regulate judges' work hours.

Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper quipped: “Judge Rosmarin wouldn't fit in up there, because he wouldn't know what to do.”

Judge Rosmarin usually finishes his workday around 5 p.m., 9 1/2 hours after he started it, court personnel say, adding that three nights or so per week — and sometimes on weekends — he comes back to do paperwork or legal research. His salary is $101,300

Adding a second judge would shift some burden off Judge Rosmarin; switching to a rapid-indictment plan also could eliminate time-consuming preliminary hearings for felony cases destined for the Common Pleas level. Both of those remedies have been discussed informally, but neither is likely to happen soon. Financial and other complications stand in the way, officials say.

“This court could have justified another judge way, way back,” the judge says. The court, whose annual budget is around $1.2 million, also could use more clerks and an additional prosecutor, Judge Rosmarin says. “But everyone knows the city of Hamilton isn't swimming in money.” So the judge and 25 staff members have no choice but to continue working at full-tilt.

“It's something we just accept, more or less; that's just the way it is around here,” says Court Administrator Paul R. Kidd. “I think everyone is expected to perform and they know each and every day what's expected of them. Judge Rosmarin sets the pace.” Overtime costs have been held to only about $2,000 a year, he said, because employees work flexible hours and learn to fill in for each other during vacations and illnesses.

Age: 65.
Position: Hamilton Municipal Court judge since 1996.
Annual salary: $101,300.
Previous jobs: Lawyer for Millikin & Fitton law firm, where he was a managing partner; municipal prosecutor and acting judge.
Education: Law degree, Salmon P. Chase College of Law.
Family: Wife of more than 43 years, Shirley; daughters Denise and Lisa; sons Dan and Douglas; eight grandchildren.
Philosophy: “The municipal court really is the "people's court,' where most people experience the judicial system. Every person accused should receive a fair hearing and be entitled to speak without fear of contempt. All persons should be treated with respect whether a defendant, witness, police officer or attorney.” — from a 1995 candidate questionnaire.
Judge Rosmarin, who took the bench in 1996, credits the staff for working diligently.

“I think it's unique in today's world that they're interested enough in their jobs to want to do a good job,” he says. “These people care about what they're doing.”

In the courtroom, he routinely refers to defendants as “ma'am” and “sir.”

With just a few well-chosen words, the judge lets everyone know he has no tolerance for dallying.

Bailiff Gary Day calls a defendant's name.

“C'mon up, sir,” the judge says.

Seconds pass. “Somebody come up,” Judge Rosmarin urges.

To attorney Frank Schiavone, who left the courtroom and missed an initial call for his case, the judge half-jokes: “We've got to hurry and get Mr. Schiavone's case before he leaves again.”

The judge also issues serious admonitions, infused with wit.

After telling an 18-year-old underage drinker he'll go to jail if he violates a three-year probation, Judge Rosmarin offers this sage advice: “If you feel you have to drink, I suggest you do it in the bathroom or a closet — with the door closed.”

Muffled chuckles fill the gallery.

Then it's on to the next case. And the next.

In an hour, Judge Rosmarin has seen two dozen defendants.

Nearly all appeared on a recent Tuesday morning solely to enter a plea or have more court dates set — matters that don't require a lot of thought, debate or time, points out City Prosecutor Daniel E. Haughey.

Cases with disputed issues usually are set for afternoons, using a triage-type method to separate the complex from the routine.

“It's sort of MASH-unit justice,” Mr. Haughey said. “It has to be when you have so many cases ... Every day it's the same: standing-room-only.”

The court relocated to One Renaissance Center, at High Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, in February 2001, but already Courtroom A has frequently overflowed its 80-person capacity.

The most serious crimes — felonies such as murder, rape and robbery — don't stay here long before heading to common pleas court.

Misdemeanor crimes — littering, simple assault and the like — are the municipal court's province. The harshest possible punishment is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine; most people get probation.

That's why, as Judge Rosmarin sees it, the common pleas judges, who have smaller caseloads but may sentence people to decades in prison or even the death penalty, have a lot more pressure.

Even so, Judge Rosmarin realizes that so-called “minor” cases can be major for involved parties, Mr. Haughey said, “and we do as best we can to make sure justice is served.”

Hamilton Police Chief Neil Ferdelman says he's convinced that the judge “puts a lot of time and contemplation and thought into making a good decision — even though it's a quick one.”

To illustrate, the chief recounted a case from two decades ago, while he was a patrol officer.

A motorist was fighting a traffic-light citation written by then-Officer Ferdelman's partner. Then-acting Judge Rosmarin asked the officer detailed questions and found the motorist not guilty. “It impressed me that, just on a little minor ticket, he was willing to really question it, making sure justice was done,” Chief Ferdelman says. “That's the way Jack Rosmarin is; that's why I have confidence in him.”

Judge Rosmarin, 65, says his life experiences — as a father of four, a husband for 43 years and an attorney for more than 30 years — help him assess defendants quickly.

He usually can sense the first-timers who are terrified to be in court; some of the courtroom levity is intended to break tension for them. Still, the judge said, “I try to make it clear that, if you come back for anything else, bring your toothbrush, 'cause you're going to jail.”

When told that he has mastered the art of word economy, the judge replies: “I don't have time to be wordy.”

He tries to choose words that resonate with defendants. “They're really not just numbers with me,” the judge says. “Some of them are: Those that have total disgust for the law and total disgust for me.”

Occasionally, Judge Rosmarin is gratified to see he influenced someone to change. “You'd think some of these people would hate me for sending them to jail,” he says, “but some of them have stopped me on the street to thank me for setting them straight.”

Judge Rosmarin was uncontested in last year's election; his last term allowed by law expires in 2007.

Mr. Piper, the county prosecutor, says he has developed tremendous respect for how much work Judge Rosmarin does — and the way he does it.

“I almost feel confused and bewildered about how much is going on simultaneously in that court. How the judge and prosecutor are able to maintain their focus with so much going on amazes me,” Mr. Piper says. “He's managed to keep a variety of characteristics that make him unique but also a firm judge.”

Succinctly put, it's a rare blend of compassion and authority, Mr. Piper says.

“I think the man truly loves doing a good job at what he's doing,” Mr. Piper says. “That's why he makes it seem easier than what it really is.”


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