South Euclid Muni Court
In a letter sent late last month to all residents, members of South Euclid's city council laid out all the recent and ongoing battles with Municipal Court Judge Gayle Williams-Byers that have made up a years-long war between the two sides that council says has needlessly cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars and imperiled its financial future.
In reaction, the Spitz law firm, which was retained by Williams-Byers, sent those council members a letter yesterday calling the claims defamatory and demanding a corrected letter be sent, an apology issued, and setting a Nov. 19 deadline before threatened legal action. (Both letters are included in full at the bottom of this story.)
Battles over budgets and questions over the state audit of the court and city's finances are just the latest installment of what council says is a pattern of Williams-Byers embarrassing the city and harming residents and what Williams-Byers, who was re-elected for a six-year term in 2018, says is actually mistreatment of her driven by racism.
The two sides have made all sorts of headlines.
There was the 2019 story, which featured city council publicly sharing the details and costs of the judge's 20-plus trips since 2014
to attend "out-of-town judicial conferences, including trips over the past 13 months to France, Panama and Hawaii. Posted with the records is a tally indicating that Judge Gayle Williams-Byers spent more than $20,000 in public funds on her trips since 2014. Nearly $60,000 also was spent for travel involving the judge or her staff during the same period."
Good government experts were surprised at the international travel for a judge whose day-to-day job focuses on traffic tickets and setting bail. The judge's lawyer said she was either a member of the groups holding the conferences or teaching seminars at them.
Then there was the fight over the court's budget, where the judge requested a $260,000 increase over 2019's figure, which the city declined to approve. The judge then sued South Euclid, but the Ohio Supreme Court in December 2020 sided with the city.
Nevertheless, South Euclid city council wrote in the letter to residents, "To date, the City has spent over $213,406 in legal and attorney's fees - and this does not include tax dollars being spent by the Judge for her own legal counsel. These are all taxpayer dollars."
And then there was the incident with the police chief.
Opting against opening the court to in-person hearings during the pandemic, the judge also "declined" to help residents remedy their situations or answer questions by phone about fines, warrants and other criminal justice matters, according to city council.
The judge told Cleveland.com this year that she was immunocompromised and didn't feel comfortable doing in-person hearings and didn't want to subject anyone else to the possibility of contracting Covid at the court either. South Euclid operated no differently than many other courts that worked virtually in 2020, she said.
There were backlogs and hiccups, her lawyers acknowledged in their letter, but every court had them.
There were more than a few hiccups, council alleged, and the lack of response was severe by the court that residents beat a path to the police department looking for answers.
"That prompted the City to create small informational cards providing basic contact information directing citizens to contact the Ohio Supreme Court, which governs municipal courts, with their concerns," city council wrote in the letter. "In response, Judge Williams-Byers ordered Chief Mays to stop handing out the cards. In another effort of good faith, Chief Mays stopped handing out the cards, even as citizens to this day continue to go to the police department to ask for help."
The judge told him, however, that going forward he had to report to her every Friday and tell her he had not handed out any cards that week. He did not, and Judge Williams-Byers held him in contempt of court.
"And now more taxpayer money and time will be spent defending Chief Mays against the Judge's rash and reckless action in the Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals," city council lamented. "This is not acceptable to us and should not be acceptable to you."
The judge, her lawyers wrote, believes the cards were printed and disseminated to "manufacture complaints" submitted to the Ohio Supreme Court to make her look bad.
Williams-Byers has for years had her own complaints about South Euclid, a suburb that is racially diverse but one whose elected leadership, she has said, is mostly white and behaved in a racist fashion when dealing with her.
“They refuse to respect the first African-American judge in the history of South Euclid,” Williams-Byers told Cleveland.com earlier this year during the police chief incident
. “This is the most racist place in Cuyahoga County... I’ll call it what it is: the white power structure in the city of South Euclid. The people deserve better.”
South Euclid city council has in the past and in the letter to residents flatly denied anything of the sort.
"Racism is not tolerated in any form in South Euclid. It is hurtful that Judge Williams-Byers has made, and continues to make, sweeping and incendiary generalizations regarding racism, especially when we have worked so hard to implement diversity and inclusion programs at City Hall and throughout the community," the letter read.
The root of all of this, according to city council's letter, is something else entirely: "The bottom line is that Judge Williams-Byers continues to make unreasonable demands on the City's taxpayers while not fulfilling the Court's basic duties. We all need to demand better."
Her lawyers disagree: "As you know, on October 27, 2021, South Euclid utilized taxpayer dollars to disseminate a four- page letter full of blatantly false and defamatory statements intended to malign Judge William- Byers and her management of the South Euclid Municipal Court. Moreover, the malicious October 27 Letter, which was signed by each of the city council member listed above, is not shy about the fact that it was motivated, at least in part, by Judge Williams-Byers’ public opposition to ongoing racial hostility by South Euclid’s leaders towards her as the first African American Judge to sit on the Court."
(Mobile viewers may have to switch to desktop view to read the PDFs below.)