WASHINGTON COURT HOUSE — Over time, all court judges develop reputations within the communities they serve. While opinions may vary when it comes to these reputations, they nevertheless exist and remain well after judges serve their last days on the bench.
When you ask individuals throughout the community what Steven Beathard’s reputation as a judge is, several adjectives are used repeatedly: “fair,” “thoughtful,” “knowledgeable,” “considerate,” and “consistent.”
When you speak with Judge Beathard, he will tell you that’s what he hopes his legacy as Fayette County Common Pleas Court Judge will be: “fair and consistent.”
Beathard spoke with the Record-Herald in February during his final days of an 18-year tenure as Common Pleas Court judge.
“Yes, I hope I’m remembered as fair and consistent,” Beathard said. “That I considered all the factors, I listened to the defendants, I listened to their counsel, I listened to the prosecutor, I listened to my adult probation department. But ultimately, I would have to make the decision.
“Now many times, the defendants and prosecutor would come to me with a recommended sentence that they agreed to and asked if that was something I would impose. I would review what I needed to review and I would tell them, ‘This is what I will do if there is a plea,’ or ‘I would not accept that.’ I would say the majority of the time — especially on cases where the victim approved of the resolution — I went along with it. But before I would agree to it, I still had to apply the purposes and principles of sentencing. I had to do my due diligence, and I had a great staff that could get the information to me quickly. I think the county has been fortunate to have consistent, effective law enforcement, prosecution, and the administration of justice. We’ve also had excellent public defenders….without them the criminal justice system would virtually collapse.”
Without a doubt, sentencing was the most difficult aspect of Beathard’s job — and the part that would sometimes keep him up at night.
“The first day all the way until the last day of my docket, 18 years later, criminal sentencing was the most difficult part of that job,” Beathard said. “You have to apply the Ohio law that applies to sentencing but you have, for the most part, great discretion within those parameters. I decided whether someone goes to jail, goes to prison, and for how long. From the first day, I didn’t know if I could do it, and the last day I’m still struggling with sentencing. You ask any general division judge what the hardest part is, they’ll tell you the same thing: sentencing. It’s not employees issues, it’s not budgetary problems, it’s not anything like that. It’s what are you going to do to somebody to punish them to protect the public. You’re sentencing the worst of the worst, and you’re also sentencing some of the best people you could meet who made a mistake. And you need to apply the law consistently, which I believe I have tried to throughout my judicial career — be consistent.”
Beathard’s judicial career almost never began at all. Although his father, Maurice, had his own private practice, Beathard was uncertain where his professional life would take him while growing up in London, Ohio.
“I have six brothers and I can’t recall any conversations with either of my parents suggesting what we do for jobs. We went several different ways,” he said. “I never really knew what my father did. I only ended up going to law school because I could not get into vet school. I was a pre-vet major at Ohio State. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get in, so I had to find something else. Law school was one of these professional schools that didn’t have any prerequisites. My undergraduate degree was in agriculture and I specialized in beef production. I’ve met several other judges and lawyers that were animal science majors.”
Beathard still was unsure of exactly what he was going to do until his second year in law school at the University of Toledo, when his father asked him. When Beathard expressed his uncertainty, his father asked him to come back to London and work at the private practice.
“So I got out of law school in ‘78 and went into practice with my father in London,” Beathard said. “I was elected city law director for two terms and I was in private practice with him until I took the bench in ‘05. I was very fortunate to practice with my father, he was in practice for 60 years.”
Beathard and his wife, Leanne, moved to Fayette County in 1995 when he started practicing in the county, as well as several other counties. It was Leanne who convinced Beathard to run for Fayette County Common Pleas Court Judge in 2004. Beathard won the election over the incumbent at the time, Victor Pontious.
“Leanne definitely nudged me into running for office,” said Beathard. “She has been my rock throughout these last 18 years, especially on those occasions when I had to bring some of the stress home.”
Although many individuals deserve credit for the renovation of the historic Fayette County Courthouse, it began in 2005 when Beathard became judge.
Renovations ensued: shag carpet was removed to reveal beautiful Italian ceramic tile flooring, wood panels were removed to reveal a door, curtains were taken down, and windows that had been painted over with black paint were cleaned up or replaced.
A wall was removed in the back of the Common Pleas Court room that had been installed with shelved units to make a law library. Tearing down that wall and moving the law library has allowed for more natural light to come into the courtroom, said Beathard. The floor was updated to model the original theater-style seating, and Beathard had benches ordered from Chicago to replace the individual seats that previously occupied the main room.
A Columbus-based company, MuralWorks, owned and operated by Matt Indrutz, provided detail on restoring the historic decorative paintings of frescoes that were in deteriorated condition. Indrutz built scaffolds along the ceiling, and the MuralWorks crew worked for more than eight weeks to fix the plaster and re-make the human figures.
Beathard said MuralWorks did unbelievable restoration work of the historic paintings. Beathard said Indrutz would take digital pictures of the original paintings, print them to size, and hang the photos up beside the paintings—as guides to follow to re-master the artwork in precise detail.
Other renovations included replacement and repair of the ceilings, crown molding, railings, and floors.
“That’s something that will endure long after my name is struck from the roster,” said Beathard. “I don’t deserve credit for it but I was fortunate that I started at that time. Judge (Nancy) Hammond, the probate/juvenile judge at the time, was certainly a big part of that decision, along with the county commissioners at the time. But I was fortunate enough to be the one who got to swing the first hammer. That was day one when we started renovating the upstairs and then it took off from there. So, it was a real privilege to get to oversee the complete renovations of the entire courthouse, from the ground floor to the attic.
“It preserved that building for generations to come. It is in good shape and it was a bargain. If we had to do now what we did then, you’d be looking at 10 times the cost. Throughout that entire project, which included scaffolding all over the courtroom, we never missed a hearing, court never closed, and we never received a single complaint that came to me that the money was not spent wisely. It was exactly the opposite. People would come in and just be very thankful that the historic courthouse was going to be preserved.”
Beathard is also particularly proud of keeping the court’s caseload current — not just with criminal cases, but civil cases and domestic cases. He presided over just short of 200 full jury trials, with approximately 95 percent of those being criminal jury trials.
“Jury trials….that’s fun,” he said. “I enjoy the adversarial process, which is what our rule of law is. We are an adversarial system. A jury trial is the epitome of the adversarial system and a person’s constitutional right. I tell that to the jurors all the time: When they hear a case that there was really no defense whatsoever, and it was clear that the defendant was guilty, I tell them there’s not a greater right than any of us have than our constitutional right to a trial by a jury of peers, and you have afforded this defendant that right. For that, I thank you.”
Treating jury members and prospective jury members with respect was always of utmost importance to Beathard and his staff.
“We rely heavily on our pool of jurors selected from the voting rolls of the county — and my staff gets the credit for this — we don’t call jurors in on the possibility that we’re going to use them like some of the larger counties do,” he said. “The night before a trial, we left a message telling the jurors whether they needed to be there or not. In cases when the jurors come in, and then the defendant pleads that day, those are usually criminals who have been to prison and they finally plead. As I tell the jurors, these defendants know they’re looking down the barrel. Then they see your smiling faces and they know that today is the day. Then, many times they end up pleading guilty. I tell the jurors that but for them, this wouldn’t have come to a conclusion.
“We have treated our jurors very well and have always taken into consideration the stress jury duty puts on their daily lives. Not only just the disruption of their lives, but the stress of having to make decisions on someone’s guilt or innocence. It’s heartwarming to me to see how considerate our jurors have been in fulfilling their obligations.”
Another point of pride for Beathard is that during the COVID pandemic, when the world seemingly shut down, the Fayette County Courthouse stayed open.
“The only hearings that ever got canceled were ones in which one of the participants had a health issue,” he said. “But we had jury trials throughout the pandemic, we had hearings, and we did it safely. We never closed the courthouse one day and never delayed any hearing without a very good reason.”
In April of 2022, a remarkable educational opportunity presented itself to Fayette County students as the Supreme Court of Ohio heard three cases at Miami Trace High School. It was the first session held in 2022 as part of the Supreme Court’s off-site court program, which began in 1987.
Beathard extended the invitation to the Supreme Court. Common Pleas Court Administrator Carmen Baird and Clerk of Courts Sandy Wilson were integral in coordinating the event.
“Kudos to not only Miami Trace, but also Washington Court House and Fayette Christian schools for letting their students be a part of that process,” Beathard said. “These students got to see something that I certainly never had a chance to see when I was in school. Hopefully, the experience will follow them throughout their lives.”
Baird has been vital to Beathard’s staff since the beginning.
“She is uniquely talented as an administrator, she is also an instructor at the Ohio Supreme Court on case management, which reflects very well on the job she’s done over the years.”
Before becoming Fayette County Clerk of Courts, Wilson also worked for Beathard.
“She is absolutely top-notch, and we’ve had a great relationship with the clerk’s office.”
Beathard also was effusive in his praise of his magistrate, Richard Dunkle.
“I brought him from Madison County to handle the domestic relations docket,” Beathard said. “He’s done just an absolutely outstanding job. There is not an attorney that can say they didn’t get a fair shake in front of Mr. Dunkle. He’s the epitome of what you want a juris to be.”
The most rewarding aspect of the job for Beathard was seeing individuals that came in front of him in court later succeed in life.
“The legislature has eased the rules for having felony records expunged over the last several years,” he said. “When they file for expungement and we have a hearing, I call them up and say, ‘Good morning, this is the only fun thing I’m going to get to do today.’ But in seriousness, the word needs to get out: If you have a non-violent felony record, you need to explore the possibility of getting that erased. Because in our county we look at those very quickly. Low level drug possession charges can be eliminated now. We’ve expunged records from 40 years ago for some people. They either needed it for work, or their kids or grandkids said, ‘Hey, why don’t you get that off your record?’ The time is shorter to apply, and the number of felony convictions that are able to be expunged has increased. Over 18 years, we’ve done hundreds of them.”
By far the most frustrating part of the job for Beathard was the ongoing drug issue.
“I get on the bench in ‘05 and I think we’ll solve the drug issue. We haven’t made a dent in it,” he said. “Many people think you can prosecute the drug issue away, that you can incarcerate the drug problem away, and you cannot do that. The legislature, I think, has recognized that as well. It became clear to me pretty early on that I was not going to be able to fix the drug problem. I simply had to enforce the laws that people a lot smarter than me had come up with. Now, for the traffickers — fentanyl and meth traffickers — there’s been some significant punishment meted out, but that doesn’t do anything to reduce the source. The addicts that are there, they’ll find it somewhere…someone will come in and fill the void in an instant. If I had to put a percentage on it, of all criminal cases we see, 90 percent have a drug or alcohol overlay.”
Beathard isn’t exactly going to take it easy during his retirement. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy has asked him to serve as a visiting judge when the law permits, which is in May.
“I’m still mulling that over,” he said. “I’ve done that during my entire 18 years in other counties. It’s probably something I would want to do if I could be of help. I do intend to keep my law license.”
Other than that, Beathard said he plans to spend plenty of time with his family. He and his wife have three daughters — Paige, Hallie and Hillary —and seven grandchildren.
“I will have plenty of time on my hands and that’s good because I have seven grandchildren to indoctrinate,” Beathard quipped.
Beathard also enjoys riding horses on his farm.
“I have a farm and woods on the property, so it’s a big sandbox to play in,” he said.
When asked if he gave his successor, Judge David Bender, any advice, Beathard said, “I texted him that if I left anything hanging or confusing, please call me, I’m retired now. And just enjoy the ride.”