Ward v. Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57 (1972)

Fundamental Cases in Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Pursuant to Ohio Rev.Code Ann. § 1905.01 et seq. (1968), which authorizes mayors to sit as judges in cases of ordinance violations and certain traffic offenses, the Mayor of Monroeville, Ohio, convicted petitioner of two traffic offenses and fined him $50 on each.  The Ohio Court of Appeals for Huron County, and the Ohio Supreme Court, sustained the conviction, rejecting petitioner’s objection that trial before a mayor who also had responsibilities for revenue production and law enforcement denied him a trial before a disinterested and impartial judicial officer as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  We granted certiorari.

The Mayor of Monroeville has wide executive powers, and is the chief conservator of the peace.  He is president of the village council, presides at all meetings, votes in case of a tie, accounts annually to the council respecting village finances, fills vacancies in village offices, and has general overall supervision of village affairs.  A major part of village income is derived from the fines, forfeitures, costs, and fees imposed by him in his mayor’s court. Thus, in 1964, this income contributed $23,589.50 of total village revenues of $46,355.38; in 1965, it was 18,508.95 of $46,752.60; in 1966, it was $16,085 of $43,585.13; in 1967, it was $20,060.65 of $53,931.43; and in 1968, it was $23,439.42 of $52,995.95.  This revenue was of such importance to the village that when legislation threatened its loss, the village retained a management consultant for advice upon the problem.

Conceding that “the revenue produced from a mayor’s court provides a substantial portion of a municipality’s funds,” the Supreme Court of Ohio held nonetheless that “such fact does not mean that a mayor’s impartiality is so diminished thereby that he cannot act in a disinterested fashion in a judicial capacity.” We disagree with that conclusion.

The issue turns, as the Ohio court acknowledged, on whether the Mayor can be regarded as an impartial judge under the principles laid down by this Court in Tumey v. Ohio (1927). There, convictions for prohibition law violations rendered by the Mayor of North College Hill, Ohio, were reversed when it appeared that, in addition to his regular salary, the Mayor received $696.35 from the fees and costs levied by him against alleged violators.  This Court held that


“it certainly violates the Fourteenth Amendment, and deprives a defendant in a criminal case of due process of law, to subject his liberty or property to the judgment of a court the judge of which has a direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest in reaching a conclusion against him in his case.”


The fact that the mayor there shared directly in the fees and costs did not define the limits of the principle.  Although “the mere union of the executive power and the judicial power in him cannot be said to violate due process of law,” the test is whether the mayor’s situation is one “which would offer a possible temptation to the average man as a judge to forget the burden of proof required to convict the defendant, or which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear and true between the State and the accused. . . .”

Plainly that “possible temptation” may also exist when the mayor’s executive responsibilities for village finances may make him partisan to maintain the high level of contribution from the mayor’s court.  This, too, is a “situation in which an official perforce occupies two practically and seriously inconsistent positions, one partisan and the other judicial, [and] necessarily involves a lack of due process of law in the trial of defendants charged with crimes before him.”

This situation is wholly unlike that in Dugan v. Ohio (1928), which the Ohio Supreme Court deemed controlling here.  There, the Mayor of Xenia, Ohio, had judicial functions, but only very limited executive authority.  The city was governed by a commission of five members, including the Mayor, which exercised all legislative powers.  A city manager, together with the commission, exercised all executive powers. In those circumstances, this Court held that the Mayor’s relationship to the finances and financial policy of the city was too remote to warrant a presumption of bias toward conviction in prosecutions before him as judge.

Respondent urges that Ohio’s statutory provision, for the disqualification of interested, biased, or prejudiced judges is a sufficient safeguard to protect petitioner’s rights.  This argument is not persuasive. First, it is highly dubious that this provision was available to raise petitioner’s broad challenge to the mayor’s court of this village in respect to all prosecutions there in which fines may be imposed.  The provision is apparently designed only for objection to a particular mayor “in a specific case where the circumstances in that municipality might warrant a finding of prejudice in that case.”  If this means that an accused must show special prejudice in his particular case, the statute requires too much and protects too little. But even if petitioner might have utilized the procedure to make his objection, the Ohio Supreme Court passed upon his constitutional contention despite petitioner’s failure to invoke the procedure.  In that circumstance, he may be heard in this Court to urge that the Ohio Supreme Court erred in holding that he had not established his Fourteenth Amendment claim.

Respondent also argues that any unfairness at the trial level can be corrected on appeal and trial de novo in the County Court of Common Pleas.  We disagree. This “procedural safeguard” does not guarantee a fair trial in the mayor’s court; there is nothing to suggest that the incentive to convict would be diminished by the possibility of reversal on appeal.  Nor, in any event, may the State’s trial court procedure be deemed constitutionally acceptable simply because the State eventually offers a defendant an impartial adjudication. Petitioner is entitled to a neutral and detached judge in the first instance.  Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

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Last Modified:  08/21/2019


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