MERCER — During a career of more than 30 years practicing family law, attorney Margaret Lucas said her cases are often laden with powerful emotion.
On Thursday, she and three other attorneys told Mercer County Commissioners that they need private places to meet with clients, to discuss cases or even to de-escalate potentially hostile situations.
“I use these rooms, have used these rooms, to meet with clients and witnesses,” Lucas said Thursday during the commissioners’ meeting. “Family law cases are emotionally fraught as it is.”
Until the beginning of this year, Mercer County Bar Association members had attorneys’ rooms to hold those meetings with clients. That changed when county commissioners gave the rooms to the office of District Attorney Pete Acker.
Now the attorneys want those rooms back. Joseph Sebestyen, president of the county bar association and a retired attorney, said he had a petition signed by 66 bar association members requesting that the spaces once again be made available for consultations between attorneys and clients or witnesses.
County commissioners took no action Thursday on the bar association’s request. Commissioner Matt McConnell said he wanted to discuss the issue further.
Lucas, retired attorney Ron Heiman and family law attorney Barbara Seman Ochs attended the meeting to support Sebestyen.
“It’s very important for the attorneys to confer with clients in private,” Sebestyen said. “We do not want to talk to our clients in the hallway where anyone can hear.”
McConnell said he thought the problem had been solved by an order from President Judge Robert Yeatts, which made jury rooms and a judicial conference room available for private meetings between attorneys and their clients and witnesses.
With the election of Tedd Nesbit and Ronald Amrhein as county Common Pleas Court judges, senior judges Christopher St. John and Francis Fornelli will no longer work in the courthouse, which frees up courtroom space, McConnell and Acker said Thursday.
Acker said the attorneys’ rooms often weren’t used even when they were available.
“The vast majority of these conversations take place in the courtroom,” Acker said. “This was the last alternative.”
Ochs disputed Acker’s contention that the rooms went unused.
“It’s where I take a client who is being heckled by her husband’s family after she accused him of abuse,” Ochs said.
McConnell, the chairman of the county commissioners, read Yeatts’ proposal from an email, which hadn’t been sent to the bar association. McConnell said increased activity in the DA’s office, particularly on drug enforcement, required additional space.
The commissioners’ decision to take no action means the district attorney’s office retains control of the former attorneys’ rooms for the foreseeable future.
McConnell said the commissioners will attempt to work out a long-term solution, possibly by moving more county offices into other buildings to create more space in an increasingly crowded courthouse.
“I think part of this was a lack of communication, or miscommunication,” he said. “I think Pete is going to stay in there until we can find another solution.”