JEFFERSON — A steady growth in the workload in the Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court system over the last four decades has led to the appointment of three magistrates to help judges streamline the process.
Michelle Fisher, Dean Topalof and Benjamin Marley use their legal skills in a variety of ways to help Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judges Gary Yost, Thomas Harris and Marianne Sezon.
Topalof, a Miami University graduate in 1993 and Akron Law School in 1996, fills a variety of roles since he became a lawyer including three years as an Ashtabula County assistant prosecutor, private practice for seven years and a public defender for 11 years before becoming a magistrate in 2016 for Harris.
Marley is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame and a 2008 graduate of the University of Toledo who spent two years as a staff attorney for the McKeon County Common Pleas Court in Pennsylvania. He was also a staff attorney for Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court for four years and has been a magistrate since 2015 and presently works for Sezon.
Fisher graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 2008 and Cleveland Marshall School of Law in 2011 before working in a law practice for a year. She then went out on her own to establish a private practice until November 2018 when she became a magistrate for Yost.
“When I first started, the judges didn’t have any of the court officer help at all,” Yost said. He said the move towards help to streamline the courts began with a move toward a part-time magistrate, Pat Walsh, to handle some of the growing domestic cases.
“It was because of the increased caseload,” he said. The load continued to grow and Pat Walsh became full-time.
Yost said a mediation department also helped reduce caseload, but eventually the idea to help the common pleas judges became possible when some funding became available. He said retired Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Alfred Mackey started moving in that direction.
Yost said the number of cases in criminal and domestic courts and civil cases are up significantly year after year. He said the cases have leveled off slightly in the last several years, but the amount of time on each case has grown.
He said a 5-minute plea hearing 20 years ago takes much longer.
“It takes me a minimum of 35 minutes to inform them of their rights,” Yost said.
Yost did not choose to use a magistrate when the opportunity arose, but has warmed to the idea. He said he was originally concerned with the amount of money available to fund the program.
“It frees up my time to do other things,” Yost said.
“I think it has been very beneficial to the constituency to get the cases through [the system],” Yost said.
Each judge uses the skills of their magistrate in conjunction with their own skills and strengths.
Fisher said Yost has given her most of the domestic violence cases to hear.
“I like the varied work. I really like the judge I work for,” she said.
All three magistrates do most of the arraignments for their judges and handle a lot of the civil protection orders. They also do legal research for the judges in specific cases of need.
“I always think the civil protection order has a chance to get stressful,” Marley said. He said it is a hard topic to address.
The judge appoints each magistrate through an Ohio law.
Topalof said he often carries his “order of referal” with him because sometimes people get confused when they don’t see a robe or a judge in the courtroom or wherever a hearing is being held.
The magistrates said they handle a lot of the civil cases when defendants ask for a non-jury trial.
Topalof said he assists the judge on many cases as well.
“I will sit in on all suppression hearings,” he said.
Another set of cases magistrates often handle is foreclosures. He said the large number of foreclosures from 2008 to the mid 2010s calmed down, but last year saw an increase.
The magistrates work in conjunction with the judge. Topalof said anything that is “novel” ends up in the magistrate’s workload.
“We are here to lighten the load,” Marley said.
Fisher also works closely with the drug court team and Topalof said he works many mental health cases.
Topalof said one of the challenging areas of the magistrate’s workload is “pro se” litigation by inmates in prison or jail. He said it is challenging because the defendant is not able to attend a hearing.
“All three judges use the magistrate to make us more productive,” Harris said.