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Toledo Legal News - News Tell us another one, Judge


photo of Judge James batesCommon Please Court Judge James Bates tells stories. Most of his stories end in a punch line. These stories always end with the judge laughing. He has a loud, giant laugh that charges up from his stomach and pops out of his mouth in a series of sharp, percussive ‘Ha! Ha!’s’.

One of the Judge’s stories involves his wife, Julia Bates, the Lucas County Prosecutor. “Julia and I met while we were both working in the Prosecutor’s office. We got married 25 years ago. Now, I became a judge in 1990 and she still worked in the Prosecutor’s office. Everything was fine until 1996 when she was made Lucas County’s Prosecutor. Now, this posed a problem for me because before if she were trying a case, I could just recuse myself. Now that she not only worked in the Prosecutor’s office, but was the head of it, I had to decide if I could hear any criminal case, because any prosecutor works for my wife. Obviously I can’t try a case that she’s involved with, but what about her employees? Is there any conflict there? My solution is that I send a letter to every defense attorney before a criminal case saying, ‘I am married to the county prosecutor, Julia Bates. If you have any problem with me hearing this case, your case will be assigned to another judge.’ And I actually thought it would have a much more drastic effect than it has. There are maybe two attorneys in town who always want their cases recused. And that’s not because of anything to do with my wife or the case, we don’t get along. So they recuse me. I don’t have to deal with them, they don’t have to deal with me. It’s the best of both worlds. Ha! Ha!”

Speaking of recusing, it may or may not be important to mention that Judge Bates is on friendly terms with the owner of this paper, Allen Foster. And of course, there’s a story about that. “I’ve played golf with Allen in a lot of charity events. He is really a good golfer. About three or four years ago we were playing and there’s a group ahead of us and they were so far ahead that I said, ‘Oh, it’s okay to hit.’ Well, Allen rocketed that ball right over their heads. And they were cops. I was convinced they were going to come back and shoot us. Ha!”

Judge Bates has stories about growing up in Rome, New York. He was the son of a well builder. “Every Saturday during the school year and all Summer I worked for my father. He would go to a town or a farm where someone wanted a well built. I remember, we were building a well for a small village. We pull into the town and there’s this five acre completely flat property. We could have drilled anywhere. And there’s this guy there with an engineering degree from Cornell. My dad pulls out a dowsing rod and starts walking the field and says, ‘We should drill right here, the rod’s pulling really good.’ And the engineer says, ‘No, we’re going to drill over here. I’ll decide where to drill, you’re just the worker.’ So we start drilling where he tell us and we get like 200 feet down and there’s no water. So the engineer picks another spot, and another. And, eventually, we drilled something like five places that the engineer picked out and got nothing. Finally the engineer said, ‘Okay, let’s try that spot you picked.’ And sure, enough, we struck water. Forty years later, that village is still running off the well my dad built there.”

Of course, the Judge did more than just build wells in his childhood. In high school he lettered in football, baseball and basketball. In fact, he was so athletic that he attended Ithaca College in part because they had a great physical education program and Bates felt a strong desire to teach gym. “Luckily, my counselor talked me out of it and I majored in Poli Sci instead.”

After Ithaca, Judge Bates moved to Toledo to attend law school. A friend had already moved out there and told him about the great internship program available.

While in law school Bates worked as a bartender at Benny South’s Bar (where no doubt his gift with a story helped fill his pockets with tip money) and as a care taker for Dick Secor, the Ottawa Hills justice of the peace. He took care of the house and yard in exchange of a two bedroom garage apartment. While preparing cocktails at one of Secor’s parties, the would-be judge met the venerable Mel Resnick. Resnick was so impressed by the young bar tender that he secured an internship for Judge Bates. That was the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship for Bates. “As it turned out, I worked in the Prosecutor’s office with Mel. When his wife Alice became a judge I took over her practice. And when Mel became a judge I took over his practice as well. Then, when Mel was appointed to the Court of Appeals, I was appointed to take his seat here in Common Pleas Court in March of 1990.”

It probably wasn’t as easy as all that though. After all, Judge Bates spent 18 years in the Prosecutor’s office; 13 of them as the Chief of the Criminal Department. In that time as a prosecutor, Judge Bates had to represent the people in a number of particularly gruesome cases. “Billy Rogers was one of the more memorable cases I tried. He was a guy who was a sexual predator, although this was before Megan’s Law. He strangled a little girl in South Toledo. I remember he had real long hair and looked a little like Charles Manson. That was the first case that was televised in Toledo, so we thought that would be a real problem, but it went okay and there were no problems. But it was a very sad case.” This is one story that doesn’t have a punch line or a laugh. Overall, as a prosecutor Bates tried 12 to 15 death penalty cases.

Luckily though, the Judge was not soured by the hard realities his job forced him to face. After all, he had too many good things in his life to be down for too long. He has four happy, successful children and two grandchildren, so far. His wife loves to play golf as much as he does. And, he’s even got proof that all those summers digging wells with his father weren’t a waste. “About five years ago the Toledo Country Club was looking to build a new well and they knew that I had a background in that area. So they asked me to spot a well for them. So I got a dowsing rod of my own and I went looking for water. And I found a spot and told them where to dig. Then I told them, ‘You know, you can only tell people about all of this if you actually find water.” The Judge pauses for dramatic effect, a smile spreading slowly from ear to ear. “They drilled on the spot that I located and they’re now irrigating the entire country club based on a well I located with an apple twig. Ha! Ha!”

Michael Davisson, Toledo Legal News Staff Writer

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