The Van Wert County Courthouse

Friday, Jan. 27, 2023

New Municipal Court magistrate sworn in

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

With a caseload this year more than 1,000 higher than last year’s record numbers — and recent legislation that could double the numbers of small claims cases heard in Ohio Municipal Courts in the next few years — local Judge Jill Leatherman swore in a new magistrate to assist her.

Lima attorney Diane French takes the oath of office as the new Van Wert Municipal Court magistrate, while her husband, Bruce, and sons Alexander and Brandon, look on. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent
Lima attorney Diane French takes the oath of office as the new Van Wert Municipal Court magistrate, while her husband, Bruce, and sons Alexander and Brandon, look on. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent

The judge administered the oath of office on Monday to Allen County attorney Diane W. French, a former FBI special agent with more than 30 years as an attorney in Lima and Columbus, as the new Municipal Court magistrate.

The new position will be funded through the court’s Special Projects Fund, although job benefits will likely be paid by the city, Judge Leatherman indicated.

The judge said having a magistrate would help take some of the increasing caseload off her plate, similar to what is done in Van Wert County Common Pleas Court. There, a magistrate handles domestic relations cases — mainly divorces, dissolutions, and child support — allowing Judge Martin Burchfield to concentrate on the court’s sizeable criminal and civil caseload.

Magistrates, while empowered to make legal decisions, must have those decisions approved by a judge before they go into effect.
“The (Municipal Court) caseload has just gone through the roof,” Judge Leatherman said, noting that having a magistrate would be a big help in managing the burgeoning number of cases.

Judge Leatherman added that it’s reasonable that Muni Court have two judges. The increasing caseload prompted City Law Director John Hatcher to hire an assistant, while there are also two public defenders assigned to her court.

Judge Leatherman noted that Mrs. French would likely handle much of the court’s civil caseload, which could further increase with state legislation increasing dollar limits for small claims court from $3,000 to $6,000, as well as take on some of the traffic cases and other needs of the court, such as issuing warrants.

Mrs. French, who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas and a law degree from Ohio Northern University’s Pettit College of Law, was first a special agent for the FBI, before starting her own law firm in Columbus that she built into one of the largest in the state handling workers’ compensation claims.

Van Wert Municipal Court Magistrate Diane French speaks while Judge Jill Leatherman listens. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent
Van Wert Municipal Court Magistrate Diane French speaks while Judge Jill Leatherman listens. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent

She then became general counsel for a large, privately held engineering firm in Columbus, rising to the position of executive vice president before retiring and joining her husband, retired ONU law professor Bruce Comly French, in his Lima law practice.

In addition to her private practice, Mrs. French also acted as an assistant prosecutor and special prosecutor for Allen County Municipal Court, and was also legal counsel for the Allen County Sheriff’s Office.

Mrs. French’s family is committed to the law, so to speak. In addition to marrying an attorney, her oldest son, Alexander, 26, is an attorney in Charlotte, North Carolina, while her youngest, Brandon, 24, is currently a third-year law student.

Judge Leatherman said she first met her new magistrate while in law school, noting that she had had Mrs. French’s husband as a law professor while attending ONU.

Both women said they share a similar judicial philosophy, which was also something the judge considered when she approached Mrs. French about taking the magistrate’s position.

Judge Leatherman said her new magistrate would likely sit in on a few cases right off to get an idea of how the judicial side of Municipal Court works.

Meanwhile, the new magistrate said she is looking forward to settling into her new position.

“I enjoy working with the public; I enjoy meeting people … getting people back on their feet who have had a rough time in life,” Mrs. French said, noting that the idea of rehabilitation is crucial to her judicial philosophy, as well as the judge’s.

“Judge Leatherman and I share a similar philosophy,” she said, which was another reason the judge thought of Mrs. French when she was looking for a magistrate .

The new magistrate added that, while those who make mistakes do face legal consequences — including punishment, when appropriate — she said she feels her main job is to get people to take responsibility for their actions so they won’t repeat the errors of judgment that brought them into court in the first place.

Judge Leatherman said having a facility that has two courtrooms is also a plus, adding, though, that having two courtrooms wasn’t just a coincidence.

“I have to admit I was looking ahead at the future needs of the court,” Judge Leatherman said of her decision to install two courtrooms in the former First Financial Bank building the court moved into in September 2015.

POSTED: 08/30/16 at 8:31 am. FILED UNDER: News