By William L. Mallory Sr.
The year was 1965. Lyndon Baines Johnson was president. Riots erupted in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The Voting Rights Act was passed into law.
In the city of Cincinnati on April 3, a cross was burned on the property of Ira Roberts at 3742 Anioton Court in Oakley in an effort to scare the Negro family from the otherwise all-white neighborhood. Six days later, another cross burned in the back yard of black minister John Washington's home at 838 Rosetree Lane in Anderson Township.
In the West End, citizens were protesting substandard housing and lack of jobs, and 300 of them appeared before City Council to complain about urban renewal. These things were happening in the year William L. Lovelace began his quest to become the first African-American to be elected to the Cincinnati Municipal Court. Judge Lovelace was elevated in a field of eight, and was destined to serve for a very brief period. In 1967, the Republican-dominated legislature abolished the Cincinnati Municipal Court and established the Hamilton County Municipal Court.
This political act caused numerous defeats of African-American candidates. Votes of African Americans were diluted by this type of at-large voting. Finally, in 1980, Rep. Tom Pottenger introduced a bill to create two additional judges in Hamilton County. I was a member of the Ohio Judiciary Committee and majority leader of the House then.
The late Sen. William F. Bowen and I devised a strategy to keep Pottenger's bill in the House judiciary committee until the governor appointed two African-American judges. I was criticized by the Cincinnati Enquirer for my actions. I was not deterred, because fairness was the issue, and I refused to capitulate. Eventually, the Democratic Party Chairman John Weithe and Republican Party Chairman George Eyrich agreed to the appointment of Jack Sherman and Barry Isaacs by Gov. Richard Celeste to the Hamilton County Municipal Court.
Their tenures ended when Judge Isaacs died. Gov. Celeste appointed a Democrat, Nadine Allen, to replace Isaacs. The Republican Party argued that a Republican should replace Sherman. Eventually, Republicans defeated the remaining Democrats. This meant that of the 33 judges on the municipal court and the common pleas court, there was not a single African-American elected. This was blatantly unfair, and I introduced legislation to rectify this situation.
I proposed that the Hamilton County Municipal Court be divided into two districts. The City of Cincinnati would become District 1 and Hamilton County would be District 2. Seven judges would be elected to each district. The House passed the legislation overwhelmingly, as did the Senate Judiciary Committee. When the bill was sent to the Senate Rules Committee, Republicans refused to send it to the floor for a Senate vote. Faced with this obstacle, I wrote a letter to Senate President Stanley Aronoff, in which I stated that I would make this a federal matter if my bill was not enacted.
I then sought to get the federal government involved, and called a federal judge in Cincinnati. I asked him two questions: Would I have a case under the Voting Rights Act. He said, "Yes." Which attorney should I retain? He suggested Tom Atkins, a nationally recognized civil rights attorney. Lois Pelekoudas at my alma mater, Central State University, helped me research the case. The plaintiffs who joined me in the suit were: Mary Ann Randolph, Vera Johnson and Charles Collins II. Then my attorney chose the late Ted Berry, Peter J. Randolph, James Hardiman of Cleveland and Margaret Ford of Brooklyn as my lawyers.
On Oct. 16, 1986, the suit was filed before federal judge Carl Ruben. The defendants were Richard Celeste, Sherrod Brown, John Weithe and George Eyrich. Heated legal confrontations lasted for seven years.
It was argued that a change to district judges would create chaos on the Hamilton County Municipal Court. It was stated that judges were not representative, in the same sense that other elected officials represented voters.
The defendants admitted they had violated the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as amended in 1982. I won because of the brilliant legal actions of my lawyers. The district method of elected judges went into effect in 1993. Chaos was not created. In fact, many candidates - whites, blacks, Republicans and Democrats - have been elected who otherwise may not have been elected because of the tremendous expense to run in a county-wide at-large election, and the Hamilton County Municipal Court is more representative of its population as a result of this case.
William L. Mallory Sr. is former majority leader of the Ohio House of Representatives.
A panel discussion of Mallory vs. Eyrich, which let to the formation of Hamilton County Municipal Court 10 years ago, will be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at the University of Cincinnati College of Law library. For more information, call professor Michael Sliming at (513) 556-0102.
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