Two of the most-experienced judges on the Franklin County bench retired on Monday, and their departures mark the start of a wave of retirements that will change the face of the judiciary this decade. Common Pleas Judges John F. Bender and John P. Bessey are the first of 11 judges who must step down over the next six years because of age restrictions.
Two of the most-experienced judges on the Franklin County bench retired on Monday, and their departures mark the start of a wave of retirements that will change the face of the judiciary this decade.
Common Pleas Judges John F. Bender and John P. Bessey are the first of 11 judges who must step down over the next six years because of age restrictions.
"We're losing two really good, experienced judges, but this is just the beginning," said Common Pleas Judge Charles A. Schneider, who starts his final six-year term this month.
In Ohio, judges aren't permitted to begin a term after turning 70. Nearly one-fourth of the 45 sitting judges in Franklin County courts - Common Pleas, Domestic Relations, Municipal and Appeals - can't run again.
Bessey, 75, wasn't eligible to seek re-election in November. Bender, 66, decided to retire four years before his term ends.
Voters elected Columbus lawyer Kim Brown to fill the seat that Bessey will vacate. Gov. John Kasich will appoint a successor for Bender.
"Six years may seem like a long time, but it's the blink of an eye," Schneider said of the period during which he and eight other judges must retire. "Where are we going to get quality candidates to replace these judges? This is a very, very important issue."
In Bessey and Bender, the public was served by judges who were well prepared for the bench, Schneider said.
Bessey, a Columbus native, had been a lawyer in private practice, an assistant city prosecutor and a restaurateur by the time he was appointed to a vacancy on the Common Pleas bench in 1993 by then-Gov. George Voinovich.
He was a partner in L'Armagnac, a French restaurant on S. 6th Street Downtown, where he devoted much of his energy from 1982 to 1987. He eventually sold his stake in the restaurant, which no longer exists.
Bessey was "quite a renaissance man and showed that in his work," Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said.
O'Brien was Columbus city attorney during the seven years that Bessey was an assistant city attorney before becoming a judge. Perhaps the most-memorable case that Bessey prosecuted for the city was a trial in which he convinced a jury that boxer James "Buster" Douglas owed nearly $300,000 in city income tax from the purse he had collected for defending his world heavyweight championship.
Bessey said his experiences handling criminal and civil cases as a defense attorney and prosecutor gave him "a different perspective" from some judges.
After 19 years on the bench, the cases he remembers best were civil disputes. He ruled in favor of the city of Bexley in its effort to prevent the construction of a McDonald's on the site of an adult movie theater in 1995 - a ruling that was overturned on appeal. In 1998, he ruled that local investors - including Wolfe Enterprises, whose chairman, John F. Wolfe, is publisher of The Dispatch - could obtain a National Hockey League franchise for Columbus without including Lamar Hunt.
"I always worked very hard not to lose my temper on the bench, to keep a degree of composure," Bessey said. "I think that's what people expect of a judge."
Bender spent the past decade on the Common Pleas bench but had been a Crawford County Municipal Court judge from 1978 to 1990. He grew up in Bucyrus and followed in the footsteps of his father, who had been a Crawford County judge.
In 1991, Bender was hired as chief elections counsel for then-Secretary of State Bob Taft. When Taft became governor in 1999, Bender was named director of the state Office of Criminal Justice Services.
Taft appointed Bender to an opening on the Franklin County Common Pleas bench in April 2000. He lost the judgeship seven months later to Jennifer Brunner, but Taft appointed him to another Common Pleas vacancy in 2003, and Bender twice retained the seat in elections.
"He had not only the necessary legal experience, but he definitely had sound judicial temperament," Taft recalled. "If you were an attorney or a client and wanted a fair shake in the courtroom, he's the kind of judge you'd want."
Like Bessey, Bender said his most-vivid memories are of civil cases he handled. They include his 2008 decision that campaign-finance reforms were invalid because of the way legislators had tucked them into the previous year's state budget. In a 2009 decision now under appeal, Bender ruled that White Hat Management, a for-profit manager of charter schools, must reveal how it spends tax dollars.
Bender called being a trial judge in the Common Pleas general division "the best job in the judiciary."
"The intellectual challenge is great, and you can make a difference," he said. "At this level, decisions we make really affect people's lives. At the end of the day, I like to think we've done something decent for people."