In a recent session, the Civil Justice Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives deliberated on House Bill 283, introduced by State Representatives Justin Pizzulli and Jean Schmidt. The proposal aims to enhance the Adams County Common Pleas court by electing an additional judge and establishing two divisions. One judge is designated for civil, criminal, and domestic relations cases, while the other is tasked with overseeing probate and juvenile cases.
Presently served by a sole judge, Adams County is one of four Ohio counties facing this predicament. The Adams County Board of County Commissioners and the Adams County Children Services Board fervently support the bill. Teresa Diane Ward, President of the Board of Commissioners, emphasized the critical urgency, particularly concerning the welfare of the county’s children.
Since the bill’s introduction, local officials, including the Adams County Board of Commissioners, have countered alleged insinuations from the sitting Common Pleas Judge Brett Spencer that the initiative to lobby state officials for a second common pleas judge has lacked openness and transparency.
Two weeks ago, the Board of Commissioners sent a letter to state officials affirming that they have “operated with openness and transparency throughout this process.” The movement to add a second judge began over a decade ago, gaining renewed momentum in 2021. In June 2021, well before any petition deadline, the Commissioners sought Judge Spencer’s opinion on the matter, as documented in a letter from Commissioner Ward. It states, “The topic of the additional judge was recently brought up again, and I am interested in your opinion.” The letter was hand-delivered and no response has been received from Spencer to date.
The Commissioners also highlight their approval of a letter to Representative Pizzulli in June 2023, seeking assistance for an additional judge. This letter is recorded in the Commissioners’ Journal, on the county website, and in local newspapers. In addition, Representative Pizzulli’s office sent a letter to the Common Pleas Court in July asking for feedback on the proposed legislation. No feedback was provided to the office of the Representative, though Spencer acknowledged after questioning that he had received the letter.
During House testimony, Spencer asserted that he and his staff were locked out of the courthouse. The Commissioners promptly refuted this claim with documentation sent to state officials, citing courthouse security measures implemented in 2019 and subsequent notifications to personnel.
“The Commissioners implemented courthouse security in 2019 which required all courthouse employees and the public to enter through one main entrance. Exceptions were made during COVID to reduce contact by permitting personnel to use the side entrances with the alarm disengaged. In May of 2022, the Commissioners notified personnel they once again must use the main entrance,” read the documents. “Judge Spencer posted an illegal court order threatening contempt of court if his staff were prohibited from using alternative access,” the document continued.
Commissioners also pointed out that Spencer, in a dictated email to Job and Family Services Director Angela Richmond (who is also over the Adams County Child Support Enforcement Agency) said there was a “catastrophic” increase in hearings for abused, neglected, and dependent children. Richmond had emailed the court in June 2023 about the reduction in the number of child support hearings. (The Adams County Children Services is a separate agency.)
During testimony, Spencer also questioned the urgency of the bill, claiming that the request to add a second Judge was created in the “dark of the night.” Representative Jean Schmidt who serves on the Civil Justice Committee and who previously served in Congress representing Adams County, stated constituents requested her help in adding a second judge 12 years ago.
“This has never been about politics or personalities. This is about the people of Adams County in which we have all taken an oath to serve. Our main goal is that all the cases are heard in a timely fashion and have the same representation that the other 84 counties have currently,” said the Commissioners.
Adams County remains one of only four Ohio counties with a single Common Pleas Judge. The legislation to add a second judge garners support from various agencies, including Adams County Children Services. The unfolding developments in this matter will be closely monitored by this newspaper.