|Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor|
O’Connor said on Thursday that the scrutiny should instead come from county probate judges.
O’Connor made headlines last week after blasting The Vindicator newspaper of Youngstown for requesting in an editorial that she appoint someone to investigate Mahoning County Probate Court and its former judge, Mark Belinky.
Belinky, who resigned from the bench last year, has been convicted of tampering with records. The Vindicator reported that he has admitted to investigators to stealing from wards for whom he was guardian, altering Probate Court records to hide those thefts and creating false records.
“You’re asking me to investigate criminal behavior, and I have no authority to do that,” O'Connor said in response to the paper’s request. “You’re giving the public the impression that the Supreme Court will be the investigators, judge, jury and executioner. That is a misconception the public has about the role of the court.”
Advocates and lawyers said that while the court does have the power to handle complaints, it cannot insert itself into a criminal investigation of a judge because it might have to rule on the matter later.
“I would agree with Justice O’Connor in (that) the court can’t do that,” said Susan Wasserman, a lawyer and one of Ohio’s two master guardians. “But there is also a need for further protection of wards, and that can come from elsewhere.”
The Supreme Court does have investigatory tools at its disposal, such as its disciplinary counsel. The counsel investigates complaints and allegations of wrongdoing against judges and lawyers and can revoke or suspend their licenses.
Wasserman said legislators in states such as California have created a statewide Professional Fiduciaries Bureau that licenses and regulates conservators, guardians, trustees and other agents who control the assets of another person.
Wasserman said county prosecutors should handle criminal investigations of probate courts.
Belinky’s actions are similar to those of Paul S. Kormanik, a former attorney in Franklin County who last month pleaded guilty to stealing from four of his wards and tampering with records. He will be sentenced in October.
Action by the court is something the public, elected leaders and advocates demanded after a five-day Dispatch series, “Unguarded,” that detailed a broken guardianship system administered by county probate courts. The system controls the lives of more than 65,000 Ohioans deemed incompetent to care for themselves.
The lack of safeguards, base-level recordkeeping and inaction by guardians and judges subjected thousands of wards to physical, verbal and financial abuse.
During her condemnation of The Vindicator’s call for a Supreme Court investigation, O’Connor asked rhetorically “Why just stop at Belinky?”
“Why doesn’t the court, under your scenario, (investigate) every judge I get an anecdotal tidbit about?” she said. “When would it stop?”
The Dispatch investigation also uncovered that a committee formed by the Ohio Supreme Court spent eight years trying to come up with new, stricter rules to fix holes in the probate system that led to abuse.
The court enacted those standards this year, mandating that probate courts for all 88 counties implement new training, monitoring and background checks. Guardians also must meet with their wards every three months.
The new standards fell short of enacting new guidelines that would better protect wards from financial exploitation, theft and losing their cherished possessions. The rules don’t protect wards from unscrupulous guardians such as Belinky.
O’Connor said that the new rules, if enforced properly by the courts and followed by guardians, will protect wards from most wrongdoing.
“If courts can’t enforce these rules because they are overwhelmed and underfunded, then that is a legislative issue and there needs to be discussion of more funding,” she said. “This shouldn’t be about trying to tar the probate courts or the (Supreme) Court — judges are trying to do the best they can.”
O’Connor said she was unfamiliar with the fiduciary board in California and could not comment on its merits.
Michael Kirkman, director of the nonprofit Disability Rights Ohio, said he agrees O’Connor shouldn’t insert the court into a criminal matter it might have to rule on later.
“But it does point out there might be a level of oversight lacking in the probate courts,” he said. “I think the new rules are a baseline and that’s important. You’re dealing with a system that hasn’t been well regulated for a number of years.”
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Ohio Supreme Court can’t investigate corrupt guardians, chief justice says