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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Franklin County Judge Receives One-Year Stayed Suspension

Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Amelia “Amy” A. Salerno received a fully stayed one-year suspension from the practice of law after the Ohio Supreme Court found she did not fairly and impartially apply the law.

In a  per curiam decision today, the Supreme Court stated that it will stay the suspension if Salerno does not commit any further misconduct, pays the costs of the disciplinary proceedings, and completes a minimum of six hours of continuing legal education in judicial ethics.

Salerno has been a municipal court judge since 2005 and she was publicly reprimanded by the Court in 2015 for criticizing jurors in her courtroom after they returned a not-guilty verdict in a criminal trial. The Office of the Disciplinary Counsel filed a new complaint against Salerno with the Board of Professional Conduct in December 2017, claiming that Salerno violated the Code of Judicial Conduct during her handling of two criminal cases.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined the opinion. Justice R. Patrick DeWine did not participate.

Text Message Exchange Leads to Bail Reduction
In November 2016, Tabatha Scalf and Juan Mendoza were charged with possession of drugs. Scalf and Mendoza, who lived together, appeared separately before Salerno for arraignment. The prosecutor requested a “high bond” for both. Scalf’s attorney explained that Scalf owned a business, was a lifelong resident of the county, and had no previous criminal record. Salerno set her bond at $75,000.

Mendoza appeared later that day with a public defender and a Spanish-speaking interpreter. The prosecutor told the judge that Mendoza had no known criminal record, but also did not have a Social Security number, which inhibited the state’s ability to fully assess his criminal history. Salerno set his bond at $350,000.

After his arraignment, Mendoza hired a private attorney, Eric Brehm, who contacted Salerno’s bailiff via text message. In his texts, Brehm wrote that the representative of the bond company thought the disparity between Scalf’s and Mendoza’s bonds might be a mistake. Brehm asked the bailiff if he could ask Salerno if it was a mistake and if she could correct it.

The bailiff passed along the exchanges of texts with Brehm. After reading the messages, Salerno called the clerk of court’s office and lowered Mendoza’s bond to $85,000. Salerno never informed the prosecutor of the ex parte communication with Brehm or that she lowered the bond.

At her disciplinary hearing, Salerno testified that she did not initially think the text messages were improper because they came to her from her bailiff and she did not directly communicate with Mendoza’s attorney. She acknowledged she came to the understanding that she violated the rule that prohibits judges from receiving or participating in ex parte communications. She and the disciplinary counsel stipulated that her conduct violated the requirement that a judge at all times must act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and that she avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety.

Verdict Changed After Argument with Prosecutor
In January 2017, Mai Toe was ticketed by Columbus police for making an improper turn. Toe represented herself at a bench trial before Salerno. The prosecutor indicated that Toe had an outstanding warrant for another driving violation. Toe had been cited for driving at an unreasonably slow speed.

Before the trial, the prosecutor offered to dismiss the slow-speed case if Toe agreed to plead guilty to the improper turn. Toe rejected the offer.

Salerno found Toe guilty of making the improper turn. She then stated that she was not going to charge Toe any fine or court costs, and Salerno asked the prosecutor to drop the slow-speed case so there did not have to be another trial. The prosecutor refused, saying the offer to dismiss was presented before the trial and had expired.

After a brief exchange Salerno told the prosecutor: “Yeah, get rid of that case; just get rid of it so we’re done. Ms. Toe does not need to come back and we don’t have to redo another trial.”

The prosecutor replied that Toe could plead guilty to the slow-speed case to avoid a trial. At that point, Salerno changed her verdict. She found Toe not guilty of an improper turn. After conferring with the prosecutor, Salerno restated her ruling and reassigned the slow-speed case to another judge. At Toe’s second trial for the slow-speed case, the prosecutor dismissed the charge after the officer who issued the ticket failed to appear.

At her disciplinary hearing, Salerno said she became frustrated with a prosecutor whom she described as “brand new,” “overzealous,” “abrupt,” and “rude.” The board found Salerno’s conduct violated the judicial conduct rules, including the failure to perform all duties fairly and impartially.

Court Considers Sanction
When the board considers a sanction to recommend to the Court, it considers aggravating circumstances that could increase the penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a lesser sanction.

The board found Salerno had a prior disciplinary record and committed multiple offenses. It also found she fully disclosed her violations, cooperated during the disciplinary proceedings, and presented evidence of her good character, which included the testimony of a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge and 30 letters from friends, attorneys, former clients, and others familiar with her community involvement.

The Court accepted the board’s recommended stayed suspension. The Court noted that if Salerno fails to comply, she will serve the full one-year suspension.

2018-1088. Disciplinary Counsel v. Salerno, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-0435.

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