History of the Court of Crawford County
The law may best be described as a process; it certainly is not a stagnant, set-for-all-time objective entity. For while certain principles will probably always prevail, others remain in constant flux.
Crawford County, like every other county in the State of Ohio and every other county in the Union, adheres to the adversary legal system. In the adversary system, two parties (known, respectively, as plaintiff and defendant) embrace a point of view contrary to that of the other, and an arbiter (the judge, or the judge and jury) decides between them on the basis of the evidence. A lawyer represents each opposing party. The judge stands between them as the referee. Each side presents its case in the best possible light, and the judge (or, if it be a jury trial, the jury) decides where the truth lies, and acts accordingly in issuing judgment. But this system, while it retains these basic characteristics, has changed dramatically since its beginnings and continues to change with the passage of time.
The adversary system has worked well in Crawford County for two principal reasons: we have, for the most part, had good laws; and their interpretation has, with some exception, been in the hands of good people.
Sixteen years before the admission of Ohio into the Union, the foundations of law and order throughout the Northwest Territory, of which Ohio was a part, were laid in the Ordinance of 1787, the author of which was the Rev. Manasseh Cutler. Rev. Cutler was a leading director of the Ohio Company, formed earlier for the development of lands and planting of settlements along the Ohio, Muskingum and Scioto Rivers, which has often been termed as the “cornerstone of the great northwest.” This first “constitution” of Ohio set forth the said territory, which extended from Detroit to Marietta. It provided for the appointment of a Governor by the Congress, a resident of the district who was required to own at least 1000 acres of land within the territory. It ordained the appointment by Congress of a Court, to consist of three judges, all residents of the district who were required to own at least 500 acres of land within the territory. The powers and jurisdiction of these judges might be compared to those of today’s Supreme Court, but important differences may likewise be noted. For one thing, the early court did not sit in one place, but traveled throughout the territory. One judge could act for the whole court. While one judge would sit in Marietta, another could be in Cincinnati hearing cases from that area. Without the printed decisions from past cases to guide them, different judges of the court, sitting at different places, occasionally issued judgments which were rather contradictory with those reached by their colleagues.
The most interesting and distinctive feature of the judges of this early stage of our history was the fact that they had the power to legislate. Section five of the Ordinance required that the governor and judges, or a majority of them, adopt and publish in the district such laws, criminal and civil, as necessary and best suited to the circumstances in the territory. A report of such actions, were to be provided to the Congress from time to time. In theory, the judges were only to adopt statutes from the original states as needed, but in actual practice, they exceeded this limitation. They enacted new laws, formulated by themselves, in response to the peculiar problems of the territory. This assumption of legislative power by the judges precipitated a bitter controversy between themselves and the governor. Congress finally resolved the conflict with a pronouncement making it clear that judges did not have the power to create original legislation without the consent of the governor.
The first appointments to the Ohio (more specifically, Northwest Territory) bench were made in 1787. Each of the original judges was widely known and each displayed high scholarly credentials.
In 1798, the first legislature was organized and elected, pursuant to the directives for its organization contained in the Ordinance. Its establishment put an end to the power of the judges to legislate. One of the first acts of the new assembly regulated admission to the practice of law. It did not, of course, require of prospective attorneys that they be able to certify themselves to be graduates of approved law schools, but it did entail, the requirement of a bar examination. Not only did the applicant have to study law under the tutelage of a territory lawyer for a period of at least four years, but one had to present the court with a certificate showing as much, before becoming eligible to take the examination. The assembly even went so far as to suggest ethical standards for the practitioners of law, and it also retained the traditional classifications of “counselors” and “attorneys” as separate groups.
The next great change in the governmental structure of Ohio dates from the first State Constitution, which was adopted in 1802. Although essential parts of the 1787 Ordinance were included, its development wrought far-reaching changes in Ohio’s judiciary. The most striking change provided for the election of judges by the legislature. The only alternative to this system generally discussed at the time was election by popular vote. This interesting, if problematic, method for arriving at a court triggered an endless debate and much needless rivalry between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
The Constitution provided for the establishment of a single state Supreme Court, Justices of the Peace, Common Pleas Courts, District Courts and new courts to be created as needed. This section was amended in October 1883, by substituting circuit courts for district courts. By this time, the requirement that a judge own 500 acres of real property had been dropped. The structure of the Common Pleas Courts was quite striking and, in some ways, very different from what one might expect. Each Common Pleas Court consisted of one president judge and two or three other judges, all elected by the legislature. Only the president judge was a professional lawyer. The other judges were laymen. The theory behind this type of court is the assumption that it should represent a blend of technical proficiency and common sense through the diversity of its jurists, one of whom is a trained professional legal mind while the others are untrained, but wise, lay minds. An obvious disadvantage of such a system is that it is slower in operation than a court run by one single judge.
The 1802 Constitution divided the Northwest Territory into three districts, with the Crawford County area being situated within District Two. The Constitution also gave the common pleas court’s jurisdiction over all probate and testamentary matters.
In April 1820, an act of legislation formed, from Indian lands, the seventh county, Crawford County. Crawford County was not officially established until 1826, upon its final organization and approval by the legislature. In 1824, Marion was made “county seat” for judicial purposes. Before that, Delaware County held that function. Luckily, the county was so sparsely populated at these early times that it had few legal problems. Otherwise, a distant “county seat” would have proved impractical.
The official organization of Crawford County by the legislature directed that county commissioners be first elected in April of 1826 and that on the first Monday in May, those elected meet at the town of Bucyrus to then determine where within the county the judicial courts shall be held until a permanent seat could be established. Because the site location was undecided, the issue developed into a major political hassle, with some candidates favoring Bucyrus and the use of private homes to conduct judicial business, while others promoted a temporary location at a small town called Crawford, in Holmes Township. The candidates favoring Bucyrus as the site were elected, and met on the first Monday in May 1826 designating that Bucyrus be the temporary site and that judicial sessions be held in private homes.
The first court term in Crawford County was held in July 1826, in the living room of Lewis Cary, on the south bank of the Sandusky River. The judge serving that Common Pleas Court, as President Judge, was Ebenezer Lane. Judge Lane may accurately be termed the first presiding Common Pleas Judge of Crawford County. He was a graduate of Harvard University, had studied law under a judge in Connecticut, where he had begun his practice. In 1817, Lane moved to Elyria, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, he became prosecutor for Huron County. In 1819, he went to Norwalk to resume his law practice. In 1824, Lane was appointed as president judge of the northwest district. He served in that capacity until the year 1830, when he was elevated to the bench of the Supreme Court. His colleagues and the general public commonly regarded him as an able jurist.
After Lane stepped down from the Common Pleas bench, he was succeeded by David Higgins of Norwalk. Judge Higgins served seven years. He was generally considered competent, but his popularity with his colleagues and with the general public, never rivaled that enjoyed by his predecessor.
Since the Constitution of 1802 was in effect at the time Crawford County was first organized into a distinct political unit, lay judges sat alongside the president judges at the time of its creation. All of the associate judges were bulwarks of the community. Their ranks included Enoch Merriman, John Cary, John French, Jacob Smith, Abel Carey, Josiah Robertson, George Poe, Hugh Welsh, Samuel Kinsley (sic), Andrew Failor, Robert Musgrave, Robert Lee and James Stewart. Lee and Stewart were the last associate judges to serve the county. They served until 1851, the year when Ohio adopted a Constitution, which eliminated the “associate” judges.
One might think that the majority of the lawyers appearing before this court, considering the difficulties of transportation problems in those days would have been local, but that was not the case. At that time there were relatively few lawyers and the ones who were successful enough to make a living from the practice of law had to travel widely. If they were to remain busy at their profession, they had no alternative but to travel. They were well known by the people and the good ones were in great demand. In fact, court in the early days of this region was not only a serious governmental function, but people would ride horseback for hours to watch skillful lawyers ply their wares.
The second term of the Court of Common Pleas was held at a brick schoolhouse in Bucyrus, which was replaced in the early 1830s by the county’s first courthouse. Because of a fire that occurred sometime about 1831, said to be caused by a friend of a convicted criminal, there are no records of the proceedings before the Common Pleas bench in the days of its infancy. But the earliest records of its proceedings, which do exist, set forth some facts of interest. In March of 1834, when Judge Higgins’ court called several cases to bar, it was discovered that the proceedings were halted. Apparently, at that early time, someone had already figured out that even a court needs records to proceed. The records of the court indicate that the clerk of the court was at first held liable for the missing documents. The record of the day following the disappearance of the files shows that the clerk appeared in court and, under oath, deposed that someone, unbeknown to him had removed the documents from the court without his permission. The clerk resigned his office. But, even though his resignation was thus accepted, Judge Higgins reappointed him to serve still another term.
Construction on the original Courthouse was completed in 1832. In July of that same year, records disclose the first session of the Supreme Court in Crawford County was held.
Judge Ozias Bowen, Higgins’ successor, sat on the bench from 1837 until 1851. Bowen, like Ebeneezer Lane, subsequently reached the Supreme Court. About the same time Bowen ascended the bench, a young lawyer from Mansfield arrived to begin his practice in the county. This was Franklin Adams, who later became prosecuting attorney and whose practice eventually spanned seven decades.
The Constitution of 1851 provided that the state be divided into nine common pleas districts of compact territory and bounded by county lines. Each of the districts consisted of three or more counties and was to be subdivided into three parts as nearly equal in population as practicable. This Constitution did away with the “president” judge – “associate” judge complexion of the Common Pleas Court, establishing in its place a system wherein only one trained lawyer-turned-jurist sat on the bench, having been elected by the electors of said subdivision. The first judge of the Common Pleas Court under the new constitution was Lawrence W. Hall, an attorney who had come to Bucyrus in early 1844 from the Cleveland area. Hall was a well-known practitioner who served as prosecutor from 1845 until 1851, when he took to the bench. Hall was generally well liked as both a judge and lawyer. He was extremely politics-minded, and was so outspoken that in a period lasting several weeks in 1862, he was held prisoner at the prison in Mansfield for voicing “subversive” (sic) political beliefs. He had stepped down from the bench in 1857 and subsequently served as a member of the United States Congress.
Josiah S. Plants, one of the truly outstanding members of the county bar, began a successful practice in Bucyrus in 1844, after reading law with Josiah Scott, a flamboyant Bucyrus lawyer. Plants was a Pennsylvania native and a graduate of Ashland Academy in Ashland, Ohio. He was Common Pleas Judge for five years after the 1858 election. Plants’ career was hallmarked by a reputation for sincere honesty and devoted advocacy. He was a brilliant speaker and a well-liked member of the community as well. He died tragically in August 1863, as a result of a firearm accident. Had he lived more than his 43 years, his career may well have become phenomenal, as it was at the time of his death, remarkable.
There was no separate probate court in the county until the constitution of 1851 created one. Until this time, probate jurisdiction attached to the Common Pleas Court. But, even though the early probate work was done by the Common Pleas judges, some “probate” records of the county are in existence from the year 1831 forward in the Common Pleas annals. The early records include a record of wills, administration docket and records of marriages. After the 1851 Constitution, more formal records were maintained. The probate journal was begun in 1852, and a record of births and deaths commenced in about 1867.
Judge A. M. Jackson began his practice in Bucyrus in 1854. He had previously served as Auditor for the county and continued to serve in this capacity until 1855, when he wholeheartedly turned his talents to the practice of law. He became Prosecutor in 1859 and in 1871 became Common Pleas Judge, where he served until 1884.
J.C. Tobias studied law in Bucyrus. He later become Probate Judge for six years, and, in 1897, ascended the Common Pleas bench, where he served for 10 years.
Daniel Babst, a Crestline barrister, served as mayor of Crestline for several terms and thereafter as Common Pleas Judge from 1907 to 1919.
On September 3, 1912, an amendment to the Constitution of 1851 was approved by the voters with a “yes” vote of 264,922 and a “no” vote of 244,375. This amendment provided for one resident judge of the court of common pleas and such additional resident judge or judges, as may be provided by law, to be elected in each county of the state by the electors of such county. The amendment allowed as many courts or sessions of the court of common pleas as are necessary, may be held at the same time in any county. It also specified that, in the event it was approved by the electorate, “the judges of the courts of common pleas, elected thereto prior to January 1, 1913, shall hold their offices for the term for which they were elected and additional judges provided for herein, shall be elected at the general election in the year 1914; each county to continue as a part of its existing common pleas district, or sub-division thereof, until one resident judge of the court of common pleas is elected and qualified.”
J. Walter Wright entered the practice of law in Marion in April 1898 and moved to Bucyrus in January 1899. He was elected Republican Solicitor of Bucyrus in 1913 and re-elected in 1915. He was also appointed City Solicitor by a Democratic administration for part of a term in 1918. He was elected Crawford County Common Pleas Judge in 1918 taking office in 1919 and serving as the first Republican Common Pleas Court Judge. During his tenure he presided at the notorious murder trials prosecuted by J. Dudley Sears, resulting in five electrocutions. Judge Wright sat on the Common Pleas bench until 1931.
Clarence U. Ahl, a Bucyrus native, was educated in the Bucyrus school system and received his law degree from Ohio State University. He was elected Bucyrus City Solicitor in 1919. He served as Common Pleas Judge from 1931 to 1952. Judge Ahl had a remarkable knowledge of the law and especially of the rule of evidence. Lawyers practicing before him were extremely capable but none of them were noted for the deference to each other, so Judge Ahl was constantly called upon to keep the peace and remarkable so, he did. In 1952, Judge Ahl left the bench in Crawford County accepting appointment to the Court of Appeals for the Third Appellate Judicial District by Governor Frank J. Lausche.
Shortly after 1940, the United States engaged in the largest war this country has ever known, and the Crawford County Bar responded gallantly. From the active practice at that time, went Frederick H. Baerkircher, William C. Beer, Jr., Kenneth M. Petri, Frank E. Wilkinson, Manfull Ashton Deare, Paul C. Kennedy, who had started practice between January 1, 1940, and the war, and Robert B. Spurlock, who was admitted to the bar in 1941 and had not practiced before the war.
Robert L. Brown, John D. Sears, Jr., Richard L. Cory, Robert Clark Neff, Charles Robert Garverick, Phillip S. Hesby, Edward H. Jones, James Quiggle, Robert S. Ricksecker and Colin Macadam all served during World War II, prior to being admitted to the bar and went into practice in Crawford County following the war.
John C. Carroll, the gifted son of Patrick J. Carroll, one of the pioneer manufacturers of Bucyrus, had already engaged himself in the practice of law and was operating a very dignified practice, catering to high-type clients. He was appointed to the Common Pleas bench in 1952, to succeed Clarence U. Ahl. Judge Carroll sat firmly upon the Common Pleas bench, where he served faithfully and capably from 1952 until 1976 when he retired. Although the rules had changed and the disposition of the laws toward criminal defendants had undergone a great transition during his tenure, Judge Carroll kept himself abreast and changed with the times.
In 1968, another amendment to the Ohio Constitution was passed and amended effective November 6, 1973. This amendment provided for common pleas courts, and such divisions thereof, if any, to be established by law, serving each county of the state. It further provided that there shall be two common pleas judges, one presiding over the probate division and such other divisions of the court of common pleas, as provided by law, and one presiding over the general division of the court of common pleas. In general the Crawford County Common Pleas Court, General Division, handles all civil cases in excess of $15,000.00 in claims, all divorce and those relating thereto, known as domestic relations cases; and all so called equitable cases which are generally known as cases in regard to real estate foreclosure, mortgages, enforcing contracts on real estate, etc. The Court also handles all serious criminal cases designated as felonies and has certain appellant jurisdiction in regard to certain cases heard by administrative bodies of the states, such as the Worker’s Compensation Board, Unemployment Compensation Board, Liquor and Racing Commissions.
The number of judges per county is based on population, and Crawford County has one common pleas court judge, general division, and one common pleas court judge, probate and juvenile divisions.
In all courts the number of cases have increased to such an extent that studies have been made on how to remedy the situation. In an attempt to speed up the hearing of cases and to more efficiently dispose of them and give better judicial service, the Supreme Court of Ohio with the consent of the state legislature prepared total new rules of Civil Procedure, which became effective July 1, 1970. The Supreme Court also prepared and enacted, with the consent of the legislature, new rules of Criminal Procedure, which became effective July 1, 1973. The legislature later passed an entirely new criminal code, with entirely different statutes in regard to most all crimes in Ohio, which became effective January 1, 1974. The legislature also passed entirely new laws in regard to domestic relations cases.
The courts authorized pre-trials, which Crawford County Common Pleas Court, General Division has adopted and uses in all cases to simplify the issues and to settle as many cases as possible. Also, the courts authorized the appointment of referees, now called magistrates, to hear certain matters. This procedure is used in Crawford County Common Pleas Court, General Division in domestic relations and protection order cases; however, in the past, has also been applied to the initial hearings in cases of a civil nature.
Robert L. Brown was the Prosecuting Attorney during the late 1960s to the mid 1970s and had found that this public position was not what it was during the terms of his predecessors. The Criminal Law had taken over the Crawford County Courts and the job of Crawford County Prosecutor had become almost a full-time job. Attorney Brown persistently did his duty and was capably performing the almost impossible task of handling the state’s side of all criminal cases in the county, while trying to maintain a private practice with the firm of Cory, Brown & Pfeifer on South Poplar Street. Prior to joining the firm, Attorney Brown practiced individually and accumulated his own general practice in his office in the Penneagle building on South Sandusky Avenue at Rensselaer Street. In late 1976, he was appointment to take the seat as Judge for the Common Pleas Court where he sat until his resignation in September 1977, when he returned full time to his private practice with the firm of Cory, Brown & Pfeifer.
Shortly before the death of Leo J. Scanlon in the late 1960’s, Nelfred G. Kimerline, who had previously practiced in Tucson, Arizona and was a sole practitioner at Bucyrus, joined the firm of Scanlon and Berger. The firm then became known as Scanlon, Berger, Garner and Kimerline. He had a very active trial practice, both civil and criminal. In 1972 he became the Easton District County Court Judge, which was located in Galion. This court later merged with the Western District County Court and became the Crawford County Municipal Court. During this time county judges were part time and were free to continue a private law practice. In September 1977, Judge Kimerline was appointed to the bench of the common pleas court upon Judge Brown resigning. Before Judge Kimerline took the bench, it had been a practice not to hold jury trials during the summer months due to the courtroom being too hot because of the sun shinning through the ceiling stained glass dome. One of the first orders of business for Judge Kimerline was to propose to the county commissioners the purchase of an air conditioning system for the court to allow utilization of the courtroom year round. The commissioners agreed to the purchase, the system was installed and jury trials were then scheduled through the entire year. Judge Kimerline retired from the bench in February 2002 while recuperating from a serious illness.
In 1980, Russell B. Wiseman came to Crawford County from the U.S. Marine Corp, where he served as a JAG Officer. He went into practice with the Galion firm of Petri, Hottenroth, Garverick and Tilson. In 1983 he began work as an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Crawford County. In 1988, he was elected as the Prosecuting Attorney and re-elected for 3 more consecutive terms. On March 20, 2002, Governor Bob Taft appointed Judge Wiseman to the common pleas bench. In the elections of November 2002 and 2008, he ran unopposed for the office. He did not run for the office in 2014, as he’d planned his retirement from the common pleas bench for the term ending in February 2015.
Crawford County native Sean Leuthold graduated summa cum laude from the University of Akron, School of Law in 1995. He began working in Cleveland at the law firm of Reminger and Reminger where he represented large corporations such as Chrysler Motor Company and Yellow Freight Trucking. In 1999, he returned to Crawford County where he practiced law at the firm of Leuthold and Leuthold specializing in criminal and civil litigation.
In November of 2007, Sean was elected Crawford County Municipal Court Judge. He served in that position for seven years where he was commended for his common sense approach to justice and his dedication to protecting victims’ rights. In November of 2014, Judge Leuthold was elected to serve as Common Pleas Court Judge becoming the first person to be elected to the bench of both the Crawford County Municipal and the Crawford County Common Pleas Courts.
The following individuals have served the Crawford County Common Pleas Court in a judicial capacity from the organization of the county, effective April 1, 1826:
JUDGES OF THE COMMON PLEAS COURT
(Serving under the Constitution of 1802 in districts, which included Crawford County)
Ebenezer Lane…………………………..1826 – 1830
David Higgins…………………………..1830 – 1837
Ozias Bowen…………………………..1837 – 1852
ASSOCIATE JUDGES OF THE COMMON PLEAS COURT
(Serving under the Constitution of 1802 in districts, which included Crawford County. The Ohio Constitution of 1852 abolished the position of Associate Judges.)
Robert W. Musgrave
John B. French
Enoch M. Merriman
Samuel Knisley (sic)
JUDGES OF THE COMMON PLEAS COURT
(Serving districts which included Crawford County under the Constitution of 1851 until 1912)
Laurence W. Hall…………………………..1852 – 1857
M.C. Whiteley…………………………..1857 – 1862
George E. Seney…………………………..1857 – 1869
Josiah S. Plants…………………………..1858 – 1863
Chester R. Mott…………………………..1869 – 1872
James Pillars…………………………..1869 – 1878
Thomas Beer…………………………..1871 – 1872
Abner M. Jackson…………………………..1872 – 1884
Caleb H. Norris…………………………..1884 – 1885
(By assignment, Thomas Beer)
Caleb H. Norris…………………………..1885 – 1892
Allen Smalley…………………………..1890 – 1900
James C. Tobias…………………………..1897 – 1907
Boston G. Young…………………………..1900 – 1910
Daniel Babst…………………………..1907 – 1919
William Scofield…………………………..1910 – 1915
JUDGES OF THE COMMON PLEAS COURT
(Crawford County Resident Judges in accordance with the Constitution Amendment of September, 1912)
William Scofield…………………………..1915 – 1916
Grant E. Mouser…………………………..1916 – 1931
(By assignment, W. Scofield)
Daniel Babst…………………………..1917 – 1919
J. Walter Wright…………………………..1919 – 1931
Clarence U. Ahl…………………………..1931 – 1952
John C. Carroll…………………………..1952 – 1976
JUDGES OF THE COMMON PLEAS COURT, GENERAL DIVISION
(Serving in accordance with the Constitution Amendment of November 6, 1973)
Robert L. Brown…………………………..1976 – 1977
Nelfred G. Kimerline…………………………..1977 – 2002
Russell B. Wiseman…………………………..2002 – 2015
Sean E. Leuthold…………………………..2015 – Present
*** The information contained in this page was taken in large part from the publication, “History of Crawford County, Ohio Horizons ‘76”. We greatly appreciate the Bucyrus Historical Society giving permission for us to use information from their article on the Bench and Bar as we find the information to be very interesting and know that others having the opportunity to visit our website may as well find it interesting reading. ***