Lawyer fees provision undermines support for overhaul of guardianship

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A bipartisan team of House lawmakers are working on a radical update to Ohio’s trusteeship laws. The changes largely stem from recommendations offered by the Ohio Judicial Conference, and they come at a time when Britney Spears’ trusteeship case has drawn increased attention to the matter.

The problem? HB 488 also has a stand-alone provision giving judges the power to hire their own lawyers without the approval of other county officials. And the Republican sponsor husband just happens to be a judge – a judge currently suing his county commission in the Ohio Supreme Court.

On paper, Diane Grendell, R-Chesterland, makes sense as a sponsor of what she and Rep. Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, are calling a Trusteeship Modernization Bill. Grendell herself is a former state court appeals judge and has spent time as an ad litem guardian. But his family ties are causing the attorney’s fee portion of the proposal to drop.

Grendell’s husband, Tim Grendell, is the probate and juvenile court judge for Geauga County. He is engaged in an ongoing battle with the county auditor over reimbursements for COVID-19 robocalls and local advertising for a program to help residents avoid probation court. In both cases, Grendell insisted to the public that “no taxpayer money” was used for the message, but the listener contends that turning around and later asking for a refund would create “a misrepresentation. public ”.

More recently, Justice Grendell has found himself in the public spotlight for placing two young boys in juvenile custody because they did not want to visit their father during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representative Grendell insisted that giving judges the power to hire outside counsel is a matter of the separation of powers.

“Right now, the executive and the legislature can have their own lawyers, but judges can’t,” Grendell told the committee at the bill’s first hearing. “What happened to the equality of judges in our state? “

But the lawyer funding portion of the bill faced a deluge of questions from fellow Republican Brian Stewart. He urged supporters of the bill to isolate judges, asking them why other county-wide office holders, such as auditor, recorder and sheriff, did not have the same right hire an external lawyer.

“In my opinion, the only situation where this is really going to exist is where the judge wants to sue the commissioners or some other county official and does not have the funds to do so,” argued Stewart. “Is there a situation in which this would apply other than when the judge wants to prosecute fellow office holders?” “

Stewart also focused on how the law caps attorney fees. The current wording of the bill binds judges to the same hourly rate as other office holders, but it does not include the annual cap that these office holders face.

“You can have a lawsuit between the judge against his commissioners in which the board of commissioners is capped, you know the attorney’s annual salary of $ 120,000,” said Stewart, “the judge can pay the attorney $ 300,000 external choice. That’s not the intention, is it? “

Grendell was quick to agree to add the language of the annual cap to the bill. But since the measure’s second hearing this week, no amendment has been proposed. During this hearing, the committee chair, Rep. Brett Hillyer, R-Ulrichsville, appeared to indicate that an amendment was pending. Grendell did not respond to a request for comment. But in a statement, Representative Galonski said the wording on attorney fees will be fixed and, like Grendell, argued that it was “unacceptable” for county officials to veto local courts.

“It is only in the rare circumstances where a prosecutor will not or cannot represent a judge that the judge will be able to hire his own lawyer,” Galonski wrote. “We are also proposing a cap on legal fees that reflects the current caps.”

But even though the bill addresses an important issue for state judges, it’s clear opponents are uncomfortable with the messenger. In written testimony, opponents pounced on Grendell’s involvement.

“This bill appears to have been drafted for the express purpose of allowing Justice Grendell to bypass safeguards that protect taxpayer dollars from waste,” wrote Shelley Chernin. “It’s the worst kind of judicial excess. “

“It is evident to all of us who follow the government in Geauga County that this bill (…) is designed to solve a problem which only benefits one judge in the state,” Barbara wrote. Partington. “This judge is also Representative Grendell’s husband.”

Representative Grendell was not the only Grendell speaking on behalf of the measure at his first hearing.

Judge Timothy J. Grendell, Geauga County Probate / Juvenile Court. Photo from the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas website.

Judge Grendell was also present and in his comments made it clear that the proposed change was intended to make it easier for judges to play in disputes with other county officials.

“If you have to follow your commissioners because they won’t spend your budget and they won’t give you the money to run your court, you have to take the commissioners to the Ohio Supreme Court,” said Grendell. “What you don’t want to do, but it’s not your choice. It is the fact that the commissioners will not approve a budget.

And Grendell would know. In addition to his fight with the county auditor, he is currently suing his county commission in the Supreme Court over who controls the judicial purse strings.

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