The lawsuit filed against Norwalk Municipal Court, former judge John Ridge and the city of Norwalk seeks class action status and claims the court jailed defendants for nonpayment of fines without bothering to hold hearings on whether the defendants could afford to pay the money.
Ohio’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the practice and accused Norwalk’s municipal court and other municipal courts of essentially running “debtors prisons” that put the poor in jail without paying attention to their rights.
The Ohio Supreme Court responded to the concerns by issuing guidelines a few weeks ago to all of Ohio’s judges. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Toledo and assigned to U.S. District Judge James Carr, must overcome the traditional reluctance of the courts to allow governments to be sued. That issue will be one of Carr’s first decisions in the case.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Joshua Ward, of Huron; Jeremiah Stover, of Sandusky; Larry Thornsberry, of Norwalk; and Tammy Dewiel, of Collins.
The attorney who filed the lawsuit, John Gold, of Sandusky, has received permission to file an amended lawsuit.
On Tuesday, Gold said he’ll likely drop the city of Norwalk as a defendant but pursue his lawsuit against Ridge and the municipal court. The city’s only involvement appears to be that its police officers served warrants, as they were bound by law to do, Gold said.
Court filings by attorneys for the defendants argue the plaintiffs have no right to sue. A memo from Toledo attorney Teresa Grigsby says municipal courts can’t be sued and there’s no evidence Norwalk city officials directed Ridge’s actions.
A separate memo from Cincinnati attorney Brian Spiess says federal courts lack jurisdiction over state courts, and Ridge can’t be sued.
On Tuesday, Spiess said he can’t discuss the merits of the case, and Grigsby didn’t return a reporter’s phone call.
“It’s always an uphill climb when you’re trying to sue a government entity,” Gold said.
Gold said he believes he’s found case law that suggests Ridge and Norwalk’s municipal court aren’t immune from lawsuits.
He said a decision from Carr isn’t likely until at least three months after the amended lawsuit is turned in.
“The court’s going to have their work cut out for them on this,” Gold said. “It’s a novel issue”
Ridge retired as Norwalk’s municipal judge at the end of 2012, but remained on the job until May 2013, when Gov. John Kasich appointed Judge Eric Weisenburger as Ridge’s replacement. Weisenburger then won election in fall 2013.
Ridge maintains his law license but is not in private practice, Spiess said.