Probate Judges Have a Lot of Power in Ohio and May Gain More

Jul 17, 2017

Kent State University political science professor Chris Banks says much of the power of probate judges comes from their shepherding of wills and estates.
Credit KENT STATE UNIVERSITY

Who wields political power in Ohio? You may think of your mayor, county officials or even Gov. John Kasich.  But county-by-county, probate judges are among the most powerful elected leaders in the state.  So what does a probate judge do?

WKSU's Kabir Bhatia recently asked Kent State University political science professor and attorney Chris Banks, who specializes in American politics and the judicial process.

He says in Ohio, probate judges are considered a limited jurisdictional court. They're a division of the county common pleas court but have a whole different kind of caseload, including settling estates and wills, handling adoptions, issuing marriage certificates, appointing guardians and doing what's called conservatory appointments, such as committing someone with mental illness to an institution if they're considered a danger to themselves or others.

And there's one other power that intrigues Banks. "The unusual thing about Ohio, they also have powers under a special statute to create and disband park districts, and appoint and remove commissioners."

A court decision and a bill
Banks says there’s nothing in the law that prevents the judges from going further than just appointing the park commissioners, and that can bring them into conflict with those commissioners or township trustees.

He points to an Ohio Supreme Court case involving Geauga County, where the state high court ruled that probate judges have the power to levy fines on anyone interfering with a park district's mission since that power is not specifically given to anyone else.

But a visiting judge disagreed with how that decision should be interpretedSo now, there's a bill in the Statehouse that would codify a probate judge's powers. Banks says, "The actual language is very controversial because it's expanding in specific terms what probate courts can do in those situations."

A vote is likely this fall.

The Ohio History Connection adds the following about the history of Probate judges' power:

On February 9, 1911 state Sen. John Krause of Cuyahoga County introduced a bill to provide for the acceptance of lands for park purposes and the appointment of park commissioners by county commissioners.  The bill (Senate Bill 99) was referred to the Committee on County Affairs which changed the appointment process. Instead of the county commissioners appointing the park commissioners, it would be the Probate judge.  The bill with this change was then passed by the General Assembly in May, 1911 and signed by the Governor in June of that year.

Tune in later today to hear more in our series on the power of probate judges, about how the bill is being received by some legislators and citizens.