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Unanimous vote closes New Haven City Court

December 27, 2018

With the controversial judge of New Haven City Court having officially retired little more than an hour earlier, New Haven City Council on Wednesday night voted unanimously to abolish the 18-year-old institution as of Monday.

The court one time handled violations of traffic and other state laws and city ordinances and administered justice in cases involving juveniles.

But two of those jurisdictions were removed in a dispute with the Allen County prosecutor’s office, and the court also was enmeshed in a controversy that resulted in its longtime judge, Geoff Robison, being charged with misconduct by a state judicial ethics panel.

Council members stressed ending the court was not a reflection on Robison but a financial decision. Handling only municipal ordinance violations left the court “no longer ... economically viable,” according to the resolution to end the court.

New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald said Robison’s retirement made the vote a formality.

“To be very honest with you, there’s not much debate about the ordinance now,” he said.

During the meeting, councilmen Bob Byrd and Terry Werling commended Robison for his years of service.

Robison had served as a New Haven police officer and police chief in a career that spanned 45 years.

“I think Geoff did an outstanding job,” Byrd said, adding the court was “a convenience” for police officers and the public.

“I feel a little remorse about giving up the city court, and maybe someday, we’re going to be able to get it back,” Werling said.  

Robison tendered his resignation Friday as a way of resolving issues surrounding the court’s future. The resignation took effect at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

New Haven officials, however, still have to decide what to do about a backlog of the court’s unresolved cases with unpaid fines. Recovering them will be an uphill task because many cases are old and parties may have moved or died, McDonald said.

The court had been projected to have an 150,000 deficit next year. However, officials said after the meeting the 2018 figure won’t be known until next week and might be considerably less.

In September, a state panel charged Robison with judicial misconduct for continuing to allow infractions of state laws to be filed with the court through May 2017, although Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards had ordered him to stop in April 2015, court documents said.  

Robison also allowed juveniles to resolve cases through a deferral program, which is not allowed, according to the seven-member state panel that investigates charges of ethical misconduct against judges.

Robison said the changes had not been sufficiently communicated to law enforcement, and he was following duties spelled out by state law.

Richards said Wednesday she could not comment on the disciplinary matter because she is a witness in the case. Asked what would become of the city ordinance cases previously handled by the court, she said she didn’t know.

“That question is theirs,” she said, referring to New Haven officials.

McDonald said his understanding is the cases will be handled by Allen Superior Court. Officials are awaiting legal guidance on the fines issue, he said. 

Robison, who attended the meeting, said after the vote his disciplinary case has not been settled. He said he could not comment on Richards’ handling of the court issues.

During the meeting, he accepted thanks from the mayor and council members.

“It’s been a good run, a 45-year run,” he said.

The city court was created by an ordinance approved by the council in 2000. Robison is not a lawyer, but state law had allowed people who are not attorneys to serve as city or town court judges.

rsalter@jg.net

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