Fulton County Common Pleas Court is marking the end of an era.
Judge James E. Barber, the longest-sitting judge in that court, will step down Dec. 31 after 30 years. He’ll take with him three decades of experience and memories, and praise from his peers as an honest, fair, and compassionate man.
His absence from the courtroom will establish the first time since 1892 –with the exception of 12 years–that a Barber family member won’t be seated as a judge in Fulton County.
It’s been a fulfilling career for Judge Barber, who, at 70, must by law relinquish his position. Over the course of a 43-year career as both an attorney and a judge, he has witnessed a transformation of the legal process via technology, a proliferation of members in the legal profession, and a seven-fold increase in the annual number of felony prosecutions.
He said through it all he strove to maintain the dignity of the countless defendants who stood before him.
“I address each person as a person I respect, as a child of God,” he said.
The Wauseon native played football, basketball, and track in high school. After graduating in 1964, he attended Northwestern University.
“I wanted to get out of the small town, and I wanted to go to the big city,” Judge Barber said.
After receiving his college degree, he attended law school at the University of Toledo for a year before the military draft claimed him. During his training, Judge Barber was eventually sent to join the intelligence unit at Fort Bliss, Texas, then was groomed to serve in Vietnam. However, a troop recall by President Richard Nixon ended those plans, and Judge Barber returned to Fort Bliss to serve out his duty.
He reentered law school following his military discharge, and clerked for a judge in Toledo Municipal Court. He divided his duties there with service in the military reserves.
After graduating from law school in 1973, Judge Barber accepted a position with the law firm his father, John Barber, helped found before leaving to become a juvenile probate judge. Judge Barber was continuing the tradition of a law career begun by his grandfather and his great-uncle, Fred Barber, who was the first resident judge in Fulton County.
With young attorney James Barber’s new position came a bumpy introduction to court etiquette during his first assigned hearing before then-Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Ham.
“I started talking to Judge Ham from a seated position, and, boy, did he yell at me,” Judge Barber said, laughing. “Told me that whoever the judge was, you are always to address him from a standing position. I learned that, and I try to send that little lesson onto new lawyers.”
He began his own law firm a couple of years later, using an office in Peoples State Bank. The firm flourished, and today is known as The Law Offices of Barber, Kaper, Stamm, Robinson, and McWatters in Wauseon. In 1980, Judge Barber accepted a position as the city’s law director.
Through a series of circumstances that included the untimely death of Judge Ham and the presidential appointment of Judge Richard McQuade Jr. to the federal bench in Toledo, Judge Barber was invited to run for Fulton County Common Pleas Court Judge in 1986.
“Frankly, there weren’t that many Republican lawyers in the county who were really interested in the position,” he said.
He was elected in 1986, and appointed by Ohio Governor Richard Celeste.
There have been marked changes in the judiciary since then, most prominently the ease afforded by computers and the Internet. Judge Barber said he began his tenure with a massive law library that had to be maintained with constant updates.
“Now computers have made law libraries no longer necessary. Everything’s now on line,” he said.
Law has also become a more competitive field. Upon his law school graduation only about 850 attorneys practiced within the Toledo metropolitan area.
“If you had good grades…you had your choice of law firms to go to,” he said.
Now, 3,500 attorneys are practicing in the same metropolitan area, “so the competition’s just a whole lot more.” Judge Barber said those attorneys include a new breed that works from their cars, which carry computers and printers.
“That’s made a huge difference in the way they’re practicing. The computer has speeded things up, the competition has speeded things up, the Internet has speeded things up. It’s a faster time in our society,” he said.
One unfortunate change over his four decades of practicing law is a seven-fold increase in the annual amount of felony prosecutions. During his first year practicing law they totaled 22. Today, they number about 160 each year.
Judge Barber said 80 percent of criminal activity he deals with has some connection to drugs. Sadly, he said, many young people abuse drugs because, due to dropping out of school and other bad choices, they find they can’t compete in the world.
“They’re really self-medicating their sense of hopelessness,” he said. “I get some people in my court, and I know that’s their situation, and I know they feel hopeless. That marijuana, and even heroin, will help them just get away from that sense of hopelessness.”
Citing a 70 percent addiction rate among heroin users, Judge Barber said: “Drugs will take away a lot of free will. Once it gets ahold of you, then you’re going to start selling everything, including your own body, just to support that habit. There’s got to be some way that we can get our young people in harness and proud of their work ethic, and get them back into the workplace so they feel good about themselves.”
He said Fulton County is in the process of setting up drug court that likely will have to be a cooperative venture with neighboring counties.
The majority of people appearing in his court are there simply because they made a stupid choice, Judge Barber said.
“They did something stupid because they were driven by drugs, finances, emotional relationships,” he said. “Their emotions get ahold of them, but they’re not evil, per se. But there is that five percent that I say are in a different category. They absolutely are evil.”
He uses several criteria when formulating a sentence, including helping the defendant recover from their mistake, administering a punishment to fit the defendant’s offense and criminal history, protecting society, and offering the sentence as a deterrent to would-be offenders.
“The law sets the standards, and I have the responsibility to apply the law, but I also have some discretion. Justice and mercy are the two sides to that battle,” he said.
And while he has agonized at times over his decisions, a number of inmates Judge Barber sentenced have sent him letters thanking him for placing them in a position from which to reflect on their lives.
“Prison does seem to have a way to crystallize thinking, so to speak. I have been part of that process,” he said.
Western District Court Judge Jeffrey Robinson, who will assume the duties of Common Pleas Court, said no one can take Judge Barber’s place.
“I’m just following him on the bench. And I hope I can maintain the same standards, and obtain the same kind of respect he has with the lawyers and the litigants,” Judge Robinson said.
He said Judge Barber comes from a family tradition of public service and service to the country, adding, “Public service is his make-up. He’s been a great judge. He’s an intellectual. He understands the law, and he understands that the law has to be applied with some charity. He has done an amazing job as Common Pleas Judge.”
Calling Judge Barber a mentor, Judge Robinson said, “I admire the kind of person he is, on and off the bench.”
Horst Wudi, a security baliff and adult probation officer, has worked for Judge Barber for 18 years.
“He’s one of a kind,” Wudi said.“He’s just a wonderful guy to work for. He’s very honest, very considerate, very fair, very compassionate. He’s in a job he absolutely loves.”
In retirement, Judge Barber will focus on his three children and two grandchildren, and plans to indulge in fishing, drawing, and painting. He may write a memoir about his experiences on the bench, and he’ll keep his feet in the profession by offering his services as a visiting judge.
“I consider it an honor to have beem able to serve the citizens of the county,” he said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.