Montgomery County Domestic Relations Judge Denise Cross scheduled 14 weeks of vacation last year, more than twice the amount taken by fellow Domestic Relations Judge Timothy Wood, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.
Cross also took 14 weeks in 2011. How that compares to other judges is unclear because there is no consistent oversight of how many days county elected officials spend in the office, the newspaper found.
The only measure of what the public is getting for each judge’s $121,350 salary is whether work is getting done.
Cross told the Dayton Daily News that the 139 days listed as “vacation” or “out” on her calendar the past two years were simply days she didn’t want a trial scheduled and that she frequently came into work on those days.
“Some of those days I took on vacation and some of those days I did come in,” she said.
In the private sector, 77 percent of workers get paid vacation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those, the most generous companies give an average of 20 days off after 10 years of service.
Cross, who was first elected in 2000, is able to make her own calendar with few rules, just like other elected officials.
Mitzi Gilliam of Dayton was one of many people standing outside the courthouse Monday waiting for her domestic relations court hearing. She said she worked 36 years selling jewelry and never got more than a week off paid. Her husband worked nearly four decades in the sheet metal union and never got paid vacation.
“I think it’s ridiculous. The common working man doesn’t get that,” she said of Cross’ vacation log. “I believe she’s entitled to paid vacation, but … that’s over two months. That’s uncalled for.”
While Cross is slower to clear her docket than most of her peers, she handled her caseload well within the timeframes the Ohio Supreme Court considers effective, according to an analysis of Supreme Court data.
“I try to get my stuff done,” she said.
Office stopped tracking days off
For this story, the Daily News used Ohio’s public records laws and requested calendars for all Montgomery County judges for 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The domestic relations court scheduler kept a desktop calendar for both judges in 2012 that had 68 days listed as Judge Cross “Vacation” and one day as “Cross Out,” compared to 28 days off for Judge Wood. Like all county employees, both also got 11 vacation days that year.
Cross ordered 63 of her days off for 2012 in an Oct. 26, 2011, memo to her staff. Wood ordered up 29 days off work in that same memo.
The 2011 calendar only listed days off for Cross. There were 71 of them, plus 10 county holidays.
Domestic relations court stopped keeping a detailed calendar in 2013, shortly after the Daily News began requesting the calendars. Court Administrator Mike Howley said that was because the detailed records were unnecessary because another system called Courtview tracks times when judges are on the bench — though not when they’re in the office.
“The reason we are not putting together the sheets that we had last time (is because) it is duplicative, we believe. The Courtview system is sufficient to our purposes,” he said. “Now that (time off) is all communicated verbally.”
Cross has a busy schedule, according to biographical information on the county’s website. She is scout leader for a local Girl Scout troop and sits on numerous judicial and social service committees.
Domestic relations court is separate from the court’s general division, which handles criminal cases. The Daily News also requested electronic calendars from the county’s 11 general division judges.
Comparing them was difficult. Many were blank — court officials said they didn’t use their electronic calendars — and others redacted all nonofficial business. Judge Mary Wiseman redacted more than 200 lines of appointment notes from her 2012 calendar provided to the newspaper, making it impossible to tell doctor’s visits from non-work lunch meetings from vacation days.
The only other judge who left his vacation schedule largely unredacted was Dennis Langer, whose calendar had him either on vacation or out of town 22 days in 2011 and 24 days in 2012.
When interviewed in person, Judges Barbara Gorman and Michael Tucker — the court presiding judge and Common Pleas administrative judge, respectively — both offered to open their desktop calendars to inspection. They showed Tucker taking about four weeks off this year and Gorman requesting only two weeks off so far, though she said that could increase.
Tucker said the nature of handling a criminal docket makes it nearly impossible to take much more time off. He and Gorman both said they’ve never heard complaints of any general division judge not coming to work.
“We know who’s here, who’s not, who’s coming and who’s going,” Tucker said. “If we notice that somebody is not showing up or is occassionally or sporadically showing up we would determine why that was occurring and we would take action if necessary.”
As for Cross’ schedule, “I cannot speak, nor will I speak, to another judge’s schedule,” he said.
Work rules for elected officials scant
Judge Wood said he doesn’t keep track of Cross’ schedule and it has no effect on his own. As administrative judge, she runs the administrative function of the office and he said things appear to run well.
As for how many days he takes off, he said, “I try to be here as much as I possibly can because I was elected to be here.”
Cross said her calendar includes only the time she planned to take off, though she spent many of those days coming in to the office working.
“If there’s something I need to get done, it doesn’t matter what the calendar says, I come in and get it done,” she said. “Even when it says vacation, likely you’ll see me here because I’m working.
“Does John Q Public get what they pay for? They get what they pay for and more.”
Work requirements for elected officials in Ohio are infamously scant. Ohio Revised Code technically requires county officers to perform their duties at least once every 90 days.
The only law that speaks to time off for judges specifically grants municipal court judges 30 days of vacation each calendar year, according to Ohio Supreme Court officials.
Montgomery County Recorder Joy Clark came under scrutiny in 1998 after a Daily News investigation found she was rarely in the office. She didn’t help her case by saying two-thirds of county offices are “empty titles. These are nonjobs these people hold, with nonduties other than to get themselves elected for the next four years.”
Judges’ jobs are different from many county offices in that they do have specific duties. If their caseload falls behind, they can be disciplined by the state Supreme Court. That hasn’t happened since 2008 in Ohio.
Judges can delegate many of their duties to magistrates, though Wood and Cross use magistrates about the same amount.
Cross case lag not a problem
Of the 10 judges in the four counties with domestic relations courts similar to Montgomery County’s, Cross had the second highest percentage this year of cases of divorces without children and dissolutions with children running behind the Ohio Supreme Court’s guidelines on how long it should take to handle various types of cases.
Through 2010, her percentage of cases of divorces without children has routinely been the second or third slowest in the state. But she is still faster than some judges from Lucas and Summit counties, faster than Wood at handling cases of divorce with children, and well below the overage rate that the Supreme Court considers problematic.
In many of the cases she and all domestic relations judges handle, lives are in the balance. On Monday, for example, Cross heard a couple fight through their attorneys over custody of a 4-year-old girl. This included weighty legal decisions including whether a marriage counselor can be called to testify about one of the party’s behavior during counseling.
Cross said she takes her job very seriously.
“I handle cases that deal with people’s houses, their finances, their children, everything,” she said. “I love what I do. I’m not doing this because I get a paycheck every month.”
By the Numbers
Days Montgomery County Domestic Relations Judge Denise Cross marked down as “vacation” or “out” in 2012
Days Montgomery County Domestic Relations Judge Timothy Wood days marked as “vacation” or “out” in 2012
Days Montgomery County Common Pleas Administrative Judge Dennis Langer marked as “vacation” or “out” in 2012
Holidays taken by county workers in 2012, bringing Cross’ total time off to 80 days, or 16 weeks
Tracking elected officials
For this story, reporters used Ohio’s open records laws to obtain copies of calendars for Montgomery County’s domestic relations and general division judges. Reporters, who began working on this story in 2012, questioned judges about their time off and researched what guidelines exist about how much time judges have to spend in the office.