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Norwalk judge won’t answer questions about his practices

Tom Jackson • Apr 11, 2013 at 8:54 AM

The judge, via a spokeswoman, sent word Tuesday that he won’t discuss the matter because it’s possible he’ll have to face litigation. Ridge retired Dec. 31, so he’s now a retired interim judge who’s just filling in.

Ridge and another local judge, Sandusky Municipal Court judge Erich O’Brien, were both criticized last week by the Ohio ACLU, which said neither judge is following the law when they send defendants to jail for failure to pay their fines after they’ve been convicted. 

The ACLU said judges can send defendants to jail for not paying fines, but only after holding an on-the-record hearing on the issue, with a defendant’s attorney present, to determine if the defendant ignored the obligation or just didn’t have the money.

The ACLU claims neither judge has been having such hearings.

There’s a sharp contrast in how the two judges have responded to the ACLU.

O’Brien answered questions on the matter Monday, and he said he’ll answer more questions when he gets a chance to study the issue. In the meantime, he said he has halted arrests on warrants for people who fail to pay fines.

The Register left a message for Ridge, asking if he would answer questions or schedule an interview to respond to the ACLU’s concerns. An employee at Norwalk’s municipal court returned the call and said, “Based upon potential litigation in this matter, the judge won’t make a comment.”

The ACLU’s letter to Norwalk Municipal Court, addressed to Ridge and court clerk Pamela Boss, raised the possibility of litigation.

“It is our sincere hope that we can avoid instituting litigation over these issues. Accordingly, we urge you to take corrective action expeditiously,” ACLU of Ohio executive director Christina Link and two other ACLU officials stated in the letter. 

Boss, reached by the Register last week, said she doesn’t set policy — she does what Ridge tells her to do.

Norwalk law director Stuart O’Hara Jr. wrote to the Ohio ACLU on April 5, explaining that the office of municipal judge in Norwalk is vacant because Ridge retired in December. Retired judges are filling in until Gov. John Kasich names a replacement, O’Hara wrote.

It’s Norwalk’s policy to comply with the law, O’Hara wrote. Once a new judge is named, “this matter and your letter will be brought to his or her attention for formal action,” he wrote.

The governor’s office has interviewed three candidates for the judge position, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said.

The Ohio ACLU has scheduled an April 18 meeting with Maureen O’Connor, chief justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court, to discuss the ACLU’s concerns over the “debtor’s prisons” issue and whether state judges are following the law when they send poor people to jail for failure to pay fines.

O’Connor has promised to meet with the ACLU about the issue, and she has followed up on that promise by scheduling the meeting, said Mike Brickner, ACLUS Ohio’s director of communications and public policy.

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