Greene County’s probate judge cannot force the county to designate that a courtroom be reserved exclusively for probate cases three days a week, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled May 7.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Judge Thomas O’Diam cannot issue an order to have exclusive use of Courtroom 3 in the Greene County Courthouse when the common pleas court general division judges already have control of the courtroom and object to O’Diam’s directives. In granting the Greene County Board of Commissioners’ request to block Judge O’Diam’s orders, the Court’s per curiam opinion noted that while in prior cases judges have been authorized to wrest courthouse space from other “administrative offices,” this is the first time the Court addressed conflicting space requests from separate, but equal judicial officers.

“We hold that a judge does not have inherent authority — and thereby lacks jurisdiction — to issue an order allowing him to take control of courthouse space when the space is already under the control of another court, or a different division of the common-pleas court,” the opinion stated.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Melody J. Stewart joined the majority opinion. Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Michael P. Donnelly concurred in part and dissented in part without written opinions.

Judge O’Diam engaged in a year-long effort to persuade the county commissioners and the two general division common pleas court judges that the probate court needed a full-sized courtroom dedicated to its proceedings. When the effort failed in March 2018, Judge O’Diam issued an order directing the commissioners to designate Courtroom 3 as the permanent probate courtroom with exclusive use by the probate court three days a week. The judge also ordered the commissioners to pay legal fees and expenses arising from any disputes.

The next day, the general-division judges issued an order expressing their intent “to maintain sole and exclusive management” of the lower area of the courthouse where Courtroom 3 is located.

The county commissioners met shortly after and voted to use county funds to construct office space and a courtroom for the probate court in the Juvenile Justice Center building, located about two miles west of the county courthouse.

The following week, Judge O’Diam declared the commissioners’ decision void and prevented the commissioners from taking any further action on it. Two days later, the commissioners sought a writ of prohibition from the Ohio Supreme Court to prevent Judge O’Diam from taking any action on his exclusive use of the courthouse courtroom and from issuing any further orders on the matter.

Less than two weeks after the commissioners sought the writ of prohibition, Judge O’Diam asked the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to compel the commissioners to follow his order and pay the legal costs. He also asked the Court to dismiss  the commissioner’s complaint. The Court has ruled only on the commissioners’ request.

Citing its 2000 State ex rel. Wilke v. Hamilton Cty. Bd. of Commrs. decision, the Court majority agreed with Judge O’Diam’s position that common pleas courts and their divisions have the authority to order funding that is “reasonable and necessary to the court’s administration of its business.” However, in all prior cases decided by the Court over competing spaces issues, the Court allowed local judges to take courthouse space used by county administrative offices such as the school superintendent, auditor, and recorder.

The county commission argued that if it is to obey Judge O’Diam’s order it would have to disregard the simultaneous order of the two general division judges to maintain control of Courtroom 3. The opinion noted that Judge O’Diam cannot claim his authority supersedes the authority of the general division judges, and the general division judges cannot argue their orders supersede Judge O’Diam’s orders. Because the general-division judges currently control Courtroom 3, Judge O’Diam “acted beyond his authority” by ordering the courtroom’s use for probate court, the Court concluded.

The Court noted the county commissioners did not contest Judge O’Diam’s directive that they pay the legal fees in the dispute. However, the commissioners have filed objections to making the payments in the writ of mandamus case. The Court indicated it will address the legal fee dispute when it addresses the other case.