As a kid I enjoyed “Schoolhouse Rock!” cartoons. One of my favorites (and maybe one of yours, too), was the ever popular, “I’m Just a Bill.” I also liked “Conjunction Junction,” and well, let’s just say there are more than a few others I fondly remember. In fact, I could probably write an entire article on “Schoolhouse Rock!,” but for now I should probably focus on the topic at hand – reforming private judging in Ohio.
What is private judging, and what does it have to do with childhood cartoons? Simply put, private judging is when people contract with a retired judge to hear their case. This is different from a visiting judge who is assigned by the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court when the elected judge has a conflict of interest on a case. As far as its tie to “Schoolhouse Rock!,” well, that is special to me. As a child, I never would have imagined that I’d have the opportunity to work on a bill that would eventually become law, but that is exactly what happened.
Back in 2018, I was asked what I thought could be done to improve domestic relations law in Ohio. One of my answers was to improve private judging. It’s not that I thought private judging was “bad,” but I did see two areas of concern that, if worked on, could make it better.
First, as a judge I had reviewed agreements that appeared to be unfair, but because the parties had agreed to use a private judge, I had no discretion and the case had to be sent to a private judge – end of story. I have to say here, that in most cases, I do think people are in the best position to make agreements that affect the most important issues in their lives. However, if an agreement is unfair, the elected judge should have the ability to address those concerns with the people involved. This is especially true in domestic relations cases where there may be an imbalance in bargaining power, or there may even be an issue of domestic violence.
Second, many cases referred to a private judge continue with the private judge after initial resolution. In those cases, if a person wanted to modify or enforce court orders, the local judge can take no action. This causes unnecessary delay and is not in the best interest of the families involved.
After much discussion, it became clear that the practice of private judging was a statewide issue that needed to be addressed, but what could be done? Well, as a judge, I wanted the option to review the case with those involved and be able to deny a private judge request if the agreement appeared not to be fair. I also wanted private judge cases to return to the court to avoid delays in any future hearings.
Sounds simple, right? Well, here’s where “Schoolhouse Rock!” comes in. If you recall, there is quite the process to get from discussion – to bill – to law. Here’s what happened, or didn’t happen, (and then eventually happened) in this case.
After requesting changes to the private judging law in 2018, the Ohio Judicial Conference, on behalf of the Ohio Association of Domestic Relations Judges, found a sponsor to our legislation change. The new bill granted discretion to the local, elected judge to refer cases to a private judge. It also created an automatic return of each case from a private judge to the local court in order to hear any post-decree issues. In 2020, I testified before the Ohio House of Representatives, Civil Justice Committee, as a proponent of the new bill. It was approved by the House, but due in large part to COVID-19, the bill did not pass out of the Senate.
Fear not, little bill! We kept working, and the private judge legislation became part of priority legislation in 2021. This year, I testified on behalf of the Ohio Judicial Conference before the Ohio House of Representatives, Civil Justice Committee, and the Ohio Senate, Judiciary Committee, as a proponent of the bill. The bill had bipartisan support and, I’m proud to say, it was passed unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Governor DeWine signed the bill into law on May 17, 2021, and it becomes effective Aug. 17, 2021.
This is exciting news for the state of Ohio and a great benefit to our Delaware County community. After Aug. 17, if citizens request a private judge and their agreement does not appear to be fair, I will be able to hear the case and ensure fairness for both sides. Also, after a case is concluded by a private judge, it automatically returns to the court. This allows the parties to modify and/or enforce orders without having to get the private judge to transfer the case back to the court. These reforms to private judging create a better and more efficient court system statewide.
The legal world has many layers and facets. It has to be open to changes and updates in order to best serve the people. I’m happy to be part of that service and to have been part of this important legislation. Now, on to my next challenge — trying to get the music and lyrics to “I’m Just a Bill,” out of my head, but I have a suspicion it may have been easier to pass new legislation!
Randall D. Fuller is judge of the Domestic Relations Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Fuller is a life-long resident of Delaware County.