JEFFERSON — Eighty years of experience will leave the Ashtabula County judicial system when three long-time area judges retire in the next two months.
All three judges are leaving the bench because of mandatory age requirements. Judges 70 or older cannot seek re-election in Ohio
Who they are
Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Ronald Vettel will be the first to go, ending his 35 years on the bench later this week. He is a life-long Ashtabula County resident who graduated from Ashtabula High School in 1959, the University of Notre Dame in 1963 and the University of Notre Dame Law School in 1966.
Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Alfred Mackey and Ashtabula County Juvenile and Probate Judge Charles Hague are both scheduled to retire Feb. 8.
Mackey was a 1959 graduate of Jefferson High School, a 1963 graduate of Hiram College and Case Western University Law School in 1967 followed by a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam from 1968-71.
Hague graduated from Harbor High School in 1960, Hiram College in 1964 and Case Western Reserve University Law School in 1968.
Mackey said he believes the quality of lawyers has improved during his time as a judge.
He added the mediation process has been a real boon to area courts saving time and money. Mediators are used to reach out of court solutions in a variety of cases ranging from child custody to foreclosures.
The judges themselves say they have worked on a variety of programs to improve the judicial system.
Hague built a voluntary guardianship program so area residents can help people who are unable to handle their own affairs.
He also said a mediation program has reduced the truancy rate substantially since its inception in the late 1990s.
One of the biggest changes to the state judicial system came from the top, Hague said. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moyer created a program to educate the public on the workings of their court system.
While Hague said the U.S. judicial system is not perfect, it is the best one in the world. Even Germany, which has long been a solid democracy, has no jury trials and no penalty for perjury — lying to a court.
All the judges said the court load is going to be the biggest challenge for the new judges.
“The volume (of cases) is overwhelming,” Vettel said, adding that even if money was available for more staffing the physical court structure in the justice center doesn’t allow for more workers the way it is presently structured. “It takes time to go through all the cases."
One idea discussed has been having multiple plea hearings at the same time, as is done with arraignments, Vettel said.
All three judges said drug addiction is a huge problem that has Ashtabula County in its grip.
Mackey said treatment is limited and jails are packed with drug offenders. Some recovering offenders have said they personally knew 15 people who died from overdoses.
Vettel said when he became a judge 35 years ago, penalties were 20 to 40 years for trafficking and 10 to 20 years for possession. Those sentences were later replaced with shorter sentences of one to five years to give judges more discretion and there still isn’t enough jail space to handle present offenders. The state also has increased early release programs because of jail overcrowding.
“You can’t indict your way out of the (drug) problem,” Vettel said.
Making a difference
One step in the drug eradication program was a drug court Mackey developed. He said there have been 75 graduates and most of them have now become productive citizens.
The drug court provides an “accountability structure” that assists offenders in getting off drugs and becoming productive members of society, Mackey said. Many have gone on to college and even graduate school.
“I had one guy ... who didn’t have a driver’s license so he rode his bike to drug court,” he said, adding, “I’m glad Judge Yost will be continuing it."
Vettel said one story sticks out regarding how “going the extra step” can make a difference in someone’s life.
He heard a man talking to his staff regarding frustration regarding overpayment of child support. Vettel said he took the time to talk to the man and realized he had been overpaying. After solving the problem, the man was thankful.
“'You are the first guy who ever listened to me,'” he said.
Hague recalled a situation when a drunk driver came before his municipal court with multiple violations and he read the man the riot act and gave him the maximum sentence possible.
Hague said three years later the man stopped him in the courthouse and thanked him for the admonition that pushed him to change his life.
The judges don’t have detailed plans but some said they hope to return to the bench for short stints.
“I’m going to take some assignments in other courts,” Hague said.
Vettel said he has also volunteered to handle two capital murder cases that began under his time as judge.
“I’ve indicated I’d come back as a visiting judge,” Vettel said.
Other than that, Vettel said he is not sure about his full plans at this point.
“I’ll be bored in about 48 hours,” he said.
Mackey said he is unsure about his future plans at this time but feels he is not retiring but “graduating.” He said he will miss contact with lawyers and the court staff.
A new group of judges will soon be making their mark as Marianne Sezon and Thomas Harris will become the new Ashtabula County Common Pleas judges and Albert Camplese will be the new Ashtabula County Juvenile and Probate judge.