In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Michael J. Rourke of Rourke and Blumenthal LLC, LLP comments on the improvements in the operation of the Ohio Court of Claims.
The Columbus Dispatch – Monday January 14th, 2013
Trial lawyers frustrated by waiting - and waiting - for rulings on their cases jokingly labeled it the "Court of No Claims."
The Ohio Court of Claims, which handles legal actions seeking monetary damages from state agencies and public universities, became "notorious for taking a long time," said Columbus lawyer Michael Rourke.
Sinceer a makeover led by Chief Justice of Ohio Maureen O'Connor and a new administrator, the court is now quickly handing down decisions while spending $1 million less a year.
The number of lawyers and other staff members has been reduced from 30 to 19 over the past two years, and changes have been made to efficiently resolve cases ranging from pothole-damage claims to complex personal-injury litigation.
It once could take nine months, even more than a year, for the court to hand down rulings after final proceedings. Now, the wait generally is two months or less.
"We're pleased with the results," O'Connor said. "These are real cases affecting real people who may have been injured by the state of Ohio."
Created in 1975 and staffed by retired judges who serve by appointment, the court also hears wrongful-imprisonment claims and appeals of crime-victim compensation decisions by the attorney general's office.
A Supreme Court review found that the court became bogged down by time-consuming procedures and the schedules of three part-time judges. The judges, paid $528 a day, came from around the state and could not preside as often as needed to keep cases moving.
The court now has one part-time judge, retired Appellate Judge Patrick McGrath, who regularly can tend to cases because he lives in Columbus, O'Connor said.
McGrath handles the bigger-dollar cases, while magistrates dispense with the 60 percent of cases involving damage claims of less than $2,500. The court has an annual budget of about $3 million and handles about 1,200 cases a year.
O'Connor will ask lawmakers to change how the Court of Claims handles appeals from crime victims dissatisfied with compensation rulings by the attorney general's hearing officers.
Five appointed commissioners - lawyers who serve part time for between $50,000 and $70,000 a year - now hear appeals, but more than half of the cases are not resolved within the 150 days required by state law.
The General Assembly will be asked to eliminate the commissioners, saving about $250,000 a year, in favor of allowing existing full-time hearing officers to handle the appeals and issue rulings more quickly.
Mark Reed, hired as Court of Claims administrator in early 2011, said the court was "overstuffed" with employees and not performing at the needed pace. "It's significant to know you can get a trial date soon and that date will actually occur. It's a savings not only to the taxpayers but also the plaintiffs who come here."
The Ohio Association for Justice, representing about 4,700 trial lawyers, will honor O'Connor and Reed with a resolution of commendation on Feb. 7.
"We are very pleased with the changes; they've been dramatic," said Rourke, a board member of the organization. "They've been very beneficial to making the Court of Claims friendlier to the people bringing claims against the state."