Bound & Gagged

The story the Ohio Bar Association doesn't want you to read.

The Station Agent Cedar Lee Theatre
Ohio Bar Association President Keith Ashmus would - prefer that we all shut up.
Ohio Bar Association President Keith Ashmus would prefer that we all shut up.
The e-mail was like most letters that come from attorneys -- wordy, officious, subtly threatening in that dainty lawyer sort of way. Ohio State Bar Association President Keith Ashmus was sending his membership a warning: Respond to this survey, and someone may come after you.

Ashmus had discovered that Kevin Hoffman, Scene writer and merry provocateur, was sending questionnaires to 500-some lawyers, asking for their opinions of local judges. Of course, bar associations also do this. "But the questions are so namby-pamby that it really doesn't give you much room to be critical," says one lawyer. And all the public gets to see is one-word assessments like "adequate" and "recommended." It's not enough info to decide where you'll get your car lubed, much less to choose an arbiter of justice.

Hoffman wanted to get the inside dish, to find out which judge was the smartest, the dumbest, the biggest hardass, or the one so imperious, you'll pray he's killed in a bowling accident before your next hearing. This, after all, is the kind of intelligence lawyers seek when they're going before an unfamiliar judge. It also indicates whether your thousands of dollars in legal fees will buy something vaguely resembling justice, or whether you're about to get jacked for thousands more due to sluggish proceedings, unnecessary hearings, and moronic rulings that take six figures to straighten out on appeal.

It's especially important in Cuyahoga County, where elected officials are never mistaken for the faculty of Oxford. As one attorney notes: "The competition for least intelligent is fierce."

But Ashmus's concern wasn't for schmucks like you. He was worried about the fine reputation of the judiciary. Scene was "asking lawyers to characterize judges . . . in highly prejudicial ways," he wrote to Northeast Ohio attorneys. This is against the rules. Harrumph.

The president, however, doesn't have much pull with his members. Soon after the e-mail was sent, Hoffman started getting calls from lawyers who hadn't received the survey. They wanted in on the action. Hoffman ended up mailing 70 more.

Ashmus appealed to Scene. "While you may see the humor in asking lawyers to match a judge's name with labels such as 'most charming,' 'biggest media grandstander,' and 'biggest blowhard,'" he wrote, "such labels denigrate the integrity of the court." Harrumph, Part II.

"We urge you to abandon this effort to characterize judges in such a disrespectful way and turn your attention to providing your readers with useful information."

Ashmus obviously isn't a regular reader of this rag. If he were, he would have known that we'd be confused by all those big words, mistake his letter for a credit-card solicitation, and throw it away.

But we did take time to look up "integrity." We still can't figure out what it has to do with the legal system.

Here in Cuyahoga County, it's run by people whose principal qualification is having a "Mc" in their name. It might best be described as a festival of lying, obfuscation, and unintelligible paperwork. Think of a legal extortion racket, only practiced by guys who use better grammar.

Ask any working stiff who's been to court. You pay to get in, he'll tell you. You pay to stay in, lest your lawyer stop taking your calls and tank your case. And if all you can afford is the discount neighborhood schmuck, you'll pay to get your ass kicked. Even if you win, you still gotta pay. Is there a theme emerging here?

Then you have to worry about the wild cards. Like the judge whose ex drilled him in a divorce, and now he's taking it out on any woman who enters his courtroom. Or the judge who takes a year to hear your custody case. Never mind that your family is stuck in limbo and in tatters; there's golf to play. Then there's the jurist who's so disorganized, you'll wait hours for a five-minute hearing. Your lawyer eventually bails, telling you, "You're on your own."

Mind you, it's not just the little guy getting screwed. Companies are often confronted with the choice of paying $25,000 to make someone go away or paying $100,000 to prove they're right. Mafiosi only wish they had a scam this clean.

If you have a beef with any of this, better just to curse into the wind. Of the 7,061 complaints filed against Ohio attorneys last year, only 1 percent resulted in sanctions. You see, other lawyers will decide the validity of your complaint. It's almost all done in secrecy. Jews had better luck appealing to the Kremlin.

Of course, Ashmus understands all this. He wouldn't return our calls, but he did talk to Ohio Lawyer in July. "I am deeply concerned about what I see as a declining respect for our courts and our laws generally," he said. "Many of our fellow citizens do not believe they can get a fair shake in our court system. If they want justice, they feel they have to take it into their own hands."

Yeah, he knows all this. He just doesn't want anyone talking about it.

In fairness, it's likely that Ohio's legal system isn't the worst. There's always Louisiana. And as Hoffman found, fine minds dot the county judiciary. "Over all, we have a hardworking, conscientious bench," says one lawyer.

Others aren't so sure. One attorney calls it "the most mediocre bench in the last 35 years." Still another says it's "fraught with arrogance, heavy-handedness, and a complete lack of experience."

In the end, Hoffman used the views of 50-plus lawyers to frame his story, "The Verdict Is In," which appears on page 16. It's not meant to be a definitive piece. It is meant to provide a little insight on how the sausage of justice is made.

Just don't tell us what you think. Keith Ashmus would prefer that we all shut up.

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