February 2, 2012

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Effects of housing crisis ripple to bench

Judge Peter J. Kontos ’79 has seen society shift and change over his nearly 15 years on the bench in Northeast Ohio. Trumbull County and its largest city of Warren have been swept up in the wave of foreclosures that has hit the entire country in the past few years.

“There have been more foreclosures than we’ve ever seen come before the court,” he said. “In the end, banks lose out, people lose out.”

Kontos attributes this upsurge not just to a poor economy in the moment but a pattern of risky lending from banks. “Too many of them were lending out more money than the value of the house or what the people could afford,” he explained. Not only are there more foreclosures, but those houses sit on the market longer because of a dearth of buyers. “Historically if someone defaulted there was always someone else to buy the house. Now you have massive defaults, but no one buys the houses.”

He points out that a bad economy doesn’t just affect the marketplace but can ripple outward and impact the type of crimes coming before him. “As the economy goes down, drugs go up, and so does crime. Used to be once or twice a year you’d get a pipe-stealing case. Nowadays, people are breaking into empty houses to strip the pipes and metal out of the houses. People are trying to get that next fix in ways and numbers we haven’t seen before.”

Before taking the bench in 1997, Kontos spent 18 years in the prosecutor’s office and tried everything from capital murder trials down to felony thefts. That experience as a trial attorney is indispensable to his work as a judge.

“It helps keep you on your toes, because you draw from that experience to think through what you would have done in their position, how to think on your feet,” he explained. “There’s an intellectual component, of course, but what you do as a judge is different from being a brilliant attorney in many other areas. You have to make instantaneous decisions on judgments, jury selections, and rules of evidence. There’s a practical component.”

In his experience, the most challenging cases aren’t about difficult case law or complicated fact patterns but when faced with unprofessional and ill-prepared counsel. “The issue is not attorneys doing what’s best for their clients; that’s a given. But when attorneys are so at each other’s throats that they need to be continually spoken to outside the presence of the jury, it makes everything harder.”

The importance of being professional and well-prepared cannot be overstated. “When someone is really ready and acting accordingly, it makes the judge and the jury’s jobs easier,” he said. “Those are the better cases, even if it’s something like medical malpractice, which is really technical and wreaks havoc on your schedule.”

The other big challenge is when faced with laws that can have broad legal implications legislators may not be considering when passing them.

For example, at one time, if an offender committed a third misdemeanor theft offense, it became a felony. During that time period, there was a proposed law that would make an offender who committed any felony in the presence of a child serve a mandated prison term.

Kontos had suggested to his state legislator that the proposed legislation might have been well intended, but poorly written. Under that proposed law, a three-time shoplifter, even for a pack of gum, would have a mandatory prison term if there were a child with them. The more perspective that legislators have regarding proposed laws, the better opportunity they have to enact sound legislation.

In addition to his 15th year on the bench, Kontos will be spending 2012 as the president of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association. He’ll represent the judges throughout the state who sit on county courts of common pleas, which has a yearly meeting with judges across the state. The association also keeps abreast of major changes on Ohio’s legal horizon, and as president Kontos may submit letters or testify before the Legislature on proposed laws or changes.

When he’s not busy serving the people of Trumbull County or representing the judges of Ohio, Kontos is a sports nut. He’s a fan of the Browns and the Indians and, like any proud Moritz alum, the Buckeyes.

This article was written by Catie Coleman.

SideBar is a monthly electronic newsletter for Moritz College of Law alumni. Questions regarding this publication should be directed to moritzlawnews@osu.edu.