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Toledo Legal News - News Judge Kuhlman gets passionate about his job, the BMV

 

photo of Judge Timothy KuhlmanJudge Timothy Kuhlman sat for his interview in his office, a crowded wood-paneled room that gives the impression of being deep underground even though it’s on the third floor of the courthouse. He is, as of January, the Presiding Judge of the Toledo Municipal Court and his desk and shelves overflow with the myriad paperwork and case files that accompany his new position.

The judge himself is a tall, blonde babyface with cornfed, Midwest farm looks which betray the fact that his graduating high school class had only 35 people in it and that Toledo felt like a metropolis to him when he first moved here from Arlington, a small town just south of Findlay. The judge is a very good natured man, intelligent and very articulate. His interview was really more of a monologue as Kuhlman spoke nearly uninterrupted for well over an hour. It’s not that he is a pushy conversationalist who refuses to let others get a word in, rather he has something of a gift for oratory and makes for a compelling, forceful narrator. He clearly loves his job and this city. Much of what he talked about related to one, the other or both, one way or another. A solidly built man, he seems to have within himself almost more energy than he can contain, especially when he gets passionate. Judge Kuhlman nearly pounded on his desk several times during the interview.

“Our legislature and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles have created an absolute nightmare. Quote that.” The judge is talking about Ohio’s Suspended Operator’s License Law and his face is stern, his shoulders tense. “The suspended license issue is probably our number one most filed case. When defendants come in here and legitimately try to resolve their issues and try to get a valid license, they can’t.” Here, the judge jabs the top of his desk repeatedly with his fore finger. “The Bureau of Motor Vehicles just goes in there and just keeps dragging them through the wringer. It’s just awful.”

If the judge seems to feel strongly on the subject of suspended liscenses, it’s only because he understands the reality of life in Glass City. “I tell people, ‘I’m putting you on probation, go find a job. And, oh by the way, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles won’t let you get your license back.’ Well, guess what? Let’s be honest, there aren’t that many factory jobs here in downtown Toledo. You need to get to Perrysburg or Michigan, somewhere TARTA doesn’t run.” What’s really interesting is how the judge’s features soften when he talks about people trying to get their lives together under unrealistic demands. The frustration leaves his voice and he leans back in his chair rather than lording over his desk. His body stays tense though and a righteous disbelief puts an edge on his vowels “I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever suspend someone’s license, like in the case of DUIs. But come on. If you tell people to get drug counseling, go to two or three NA meetings a week, get a job, get your GED, go to domestic violence classes all without violating the Suspended Operator’s License Law, how are they going to do that? How do they get to Court, to Compass for drug testing on the East end and then make it to Aurora Gonzalez in the South side for domestic violence counseling. How do they get there? Who drives them around? The girlfriend I told them to have no contact with, probably.”

An idealistic streak appropriate to a man who describes his job as being, “80 percent social work” runs through Judge Kuhlman’s thoughts. He talks several times during the interview about the relationship between poverty and crime. At one point he went so far as to suggest that, “If we addressed education and the ability to get a job, you could put me out of a job. Sure, we’d need a couple of judges around to handle speeding tickets, but for the most part if we could get people a decent education and a job my docket would only be 20 percent of what it is now. And most of that would be traffic and random stuff like, ‘I bounced a check and was too lazy to take care of it’.

Kuhlman’s answer, when asked about any philosophies that guide his judgments in the court room, reveals a man who tempers the bad behavior and poor decisions that parade in front of him every day with a bedrock belief in the inherent goodness of people “If a person, no matter how bad their record is can show me at least some willingness to change, then I’m willing to work with them. Often times there’s no reason not to pack as many days onto their sentence as I can, to max and stack them, but if they tell me, ‘Well, I’ve been going to an out reach program and I’ve tried to get a job’ well great then. I’ve had people screw up on me in this job since day one but so long as you’re willing to do something, to try something then you can be in and out of here on drug problems, alcohol, all the crimes that go along with all that but so long as you show me that you’re trying to change, that you’re willing to work, then I won’t just lock you up and throw you away.”

The judge is committed to getting people the help they need is evident from his involvement in the Toledo community. Judge Kuhlman understands that the Court has a limited budget and cannot help everyone, so he makes it an effort to make contact with community groups and social programs “The judges’ here in the Municipal Court are committed to getting better results. That’s one of the reasons why we work with the Greater Toledo Urban League, the Salvation Army, the Aurora Gonzalez Community and Family Resource Center and other organizations. I had a woman come in one day on a probation violation who told me she was getting help at the Cathedral of Praise. Well I’ve been there, I know that program, I know what it’s about. So instead of punishing her, I could just continue the hearing for a month because I know she’s getting help, even though the Cathedral of Praise doesn’t directly work with our probation department.” Judge Kuhlman is committed to finding alternative sentences for most of the people who appear before him. “For the most part, the people we see are not dangerous, none of their crimes are that serious with the exception of drunk driving or domestic violence. But for the most part we can work with most people in most cases, even if it’s an assault charge in this court there’s no weapon involved nor a serious injury. So we really need to find ways not to incarcerate people because, for the most part, it’s not appropriate considering what they’ve done. Besides, we don’t have the money to provide a sufficient number of jail beds for the people who really need it. Let alone the people for whom we ought to be finding other treatment options for.”

This is a taxing job, even for a physical man like Judge Kuhlman, whose favorite past time is water skiing on Lake Erie, often times barefoot. Even so, it’s not a job that the judge plans to leave any time soon. “While there are other things that interest me, I have no intention of ever leaving the judiciary. I really believe that everything I’ve done has prepared me to do this. All the social work that I’ve done with Aurora Gonzalez, the Law Tuesday program that I started as an attorney in 1999, it’s all come together to make me a better judge.”

Michael Davisson, Toledo Legal News Staff Writer

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