The Van Wert County Courthouse

Wednesday, May. 27, 2020

Judge Fortney reflects on judicial career

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Retiring Probate-Juvenile Court Judge Rex Fortney in his office. (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)

By now, Rex Fortney has heard his last juvenile-related case and probated his final will. The end of the year will also be the end of a 27-year career for Rex Fortney as judge of the Van Wert County Probate-Juvenile Court.

While Judge Fortney is now one of the more veteran juvenile-probate judges in the state, that wasn’t the case when he began his first term in 1985. “I was 34, which is fairly young for a judge,” Judge Fortney said, noting that a judge has to have to have a minimum of six years experience as an attorney, which would make the minimum age for a judge the early 30s.

Being a judge — or even an attorney — wasn’t something Fortney planned on when he graduated from Crestview High School and went off to Bluffton College in the late 1960s. “I was going to be the infamous history teacher,” the judge said, noting that history is still a love of his.

Judge Fortney said he was not even thinking about law school at the time. “If someone would have said ‘thinking about law school?’ I would have said ‘no,’” he said, adding that he didn’t feel he could afford law school, didn’t have any interest in being a lawyer and didn’t even know someone who was a lawyer.

That changed, though, when his college advisor — who also happened to be his history professor — told him he had made him an appointment with a representative of the Ohio Northern University College of Law.

It also didn’t hurt that the Vietnam War was going on and Judge Fortney hadn’t found a teaching job by the time law school was to start.

After graduating from law school, the judge began looking for a job — something that also wasn’t easy as a lawyer, since several other attorneys, including Steve Keister, Sumner E. Walters and Don Johnson, had created somewhat of an “attorney glut” in Van Wert the year before he passed the bar exam.

He finally found work in the Putnam County community of Ottawa, where a local judge was having trouble getting attorneys to take court-appointed cases. After a brief time doing that, Fortney took a job in former local attorney Jim Childs’ office. At the time, Childs’ wife, Luanne, who was also an attorney, was terminally ill and Childs needed another lawyer to help with the couple’s mostly estate planning practice.

Fortney worked with Childs for 7 or 8 years and then was elected Van Wert law director for one four-year term. He then sat out a year before running for retiring Judge Cathryn Harrington’s probate-juvenile court position.

It wasn’t a free pass, as Fortney had opposition in the primary from fellow Republican Steve Mansfield and then had to run a three-way race against then-Democrat Steve Gehres and Legal Aid attorney Sherry Katz, who ran as an independent.

“It was a tight race,” the judge remembers, noting that he won with only 36 percent of the vote. Since then, Fortney has had no opposition when running for four more six-year terms.

After his election, the new judge then spent the next six years learning the job. “Today, the Ohio Supreme Court has new judges’ school,” Fortney explained, adding that being a judge in 1985 was strictly OJT — on the job training.

“I think it probably took me all of that first term to develop a philosophy and learn the job,” Judge Fortney said. “That was the learning curve; anytime something new came up, I had to research the law.”

Today, with nearly three decades as a judge, Fortney said, while he looks at each new case “with fresh eyes,” he doesn’t have to look up the case law. “There’s probably very little I see today that I haven’t already seen before.”

That doesn’t mean things haven’t changed in his 27-year judicial career. For one thing, Judge Harrington’s office didn’t have computers. “They would pull out these big books and hand write judgment entries in them,” Judge Fortney said with a smile.

As an attorney, Fortney had his own personal computer, and he also brought a couple of staffers with him who were computer-literate, but said it took some time to develop forms and get everyone trained on computer use.

Another change has been the change in formality for juvenile hearings. During Judge Harrington’s 27-year tenure, juvenile cases were much more informal and hearings were often held in the judge’s chambers, rather than in a formal courtroom setting.

Although Judge Fortney began holding hearings in his courtroom, it was awhile before he started wearing robes in court. Today, hearings are more formal, mostly because the legal system has changed the way it looks at juvenile cases. “Juveniles now have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent,” Judge Fortney said, noting that young people didn’t have much in the way of constitutional rights 25 years ago.

What most people don’t know is juveniles still don’t have the right to a jury trial, Judge Fortney said.

For the most part, the judge said the cases — and the kids — weren’t much different in 1985, despite the perception that young people commit more serious crimes today.

Sex cases is one area that has increased dramatically over the past 27 years, Judge Fortney said, adding that he developed a special counseling program — CARE — that he said has been very successful in treating youthful sex offenders. “The younger you get sex offenders, the more success you have in treating them,” the judge said, noting that he can’t recall a single juvenile who has completed the CARE program who has committed another sex offense.

But while there hasn’t been a big change in kids, there has been a change in their parents, Judge Fortney said. “There has been a little more breakdown in the family,” he noted, adding that there used to be someone in a kid’s extended family — maybe a grandmother — who was religious and taught the kids right and wrong. “That’s gone now,” the judge said, noting that today’s kids are more concerned they got caught than understanding whether what they have done is right or wrong.

Still, Judge Fortney said he’s pleased he hasn’t had a single case of murder or even an armed robbery in 27 years in his own court.

In fact, the judge’s personal judicial philosophy is a simple one: don’t give up on kids. “There have only been a handful of kids in 27 years that were hopeless; that I knew were going down the wrong path and we weren’t going to be able to solve them,” Judge Fortney added. “I still see some of them in the adult criminal courts.”

His biggest fight, though, hasn’t been over kids, but with the Van Wert County Board of Commissioners to get decent facilities.

A few years ago, Judge Fortney had to sue the commissioners to get them to provide him with what he felt were adequate and secure courtroom facilities. “We tried arbitration, mediation, without success,” the judge said. “Finally I had to file a lawsuit.”

The problems with the old Probate-Juvenile Courtroom, which was located in the basement of the Courthouse, was it was too small, had no security and badly needed renovating. Judge Fortney did note, though, that once the commissioners did agree to do something, they provided excellent facilities. “Ultimately, I got great facilities,” the judge said, adding that the current court offices should be adequate for decades.

What’s next after retirement? Judge Fortney said he and his wife, Bev, a retired kindergarten teacher, have purchased a condo near their daughter, Laura, in Florida and he also plans to do more church work — he’s a lay minister — and also provide more care for his 84-year-old mother.

Judge Fortney said he also has some concerns, though, about retiring, noting that there is some prestige in being a judge, as well as the feeling that he has helped kids over the years.

Of course, he also feels he has something yet to contribute in the judicial area and said he would likely do some visiting judge stints down the road.

But not too many; after all, he’s retired.

POSTED: 12/31/11 at 6:32 am. FILED UNDER: News