Mayor’s courts survive as a mere shadow of their erstwhile authority today. Of all the United States, only Ohio and Louisiana retain this curious legal vestige of medieval jurisprudence. Mayor’s courts are strictly limited in the kinds of laws they can enforce—mostly misdemeanors and traffic citations—and legal challenges continue to nibble away at even those remnants.
Up to the 1920s, however, Ohio’s mayors exercised powers far beyond the limited purview they retain today. They were considered justices of the peace, a county office endowing countywide authority, which allowed mayors to officiate at marriages (a power they still enjoy) as well as to enforce any state law anywhere in the county. Ohio’s mayors were, in other words, freelance state marshals.
Most mayors, having other things to occupy their time, confined their attentions to strictly local matters within their specific jurisdictions. Occasionally, however, an enthusiastic mayor launched a crusade across Hamilton County.
In 1905, for example, Hartwell Mayor James A. Lowes got his knickers in a bunch over Cincinnati’s blasé enforcement of gambling laws, particularly the profusion of penny slot machines in Vine Street saloons. Lowes sent his deputies into the Queen City, impounding slot machines and infuriating Cincinnati’s graft-fattened politicians until the appeals courts slapped his wrist.
As the U.S. succumbed to that experiment in barbarism known as Prohibition, mayor’s courts became Liquor Courts, authorized to penalize bootleggers and associated scofflaws. In 1924, Albert R. Pugh was appointed mayor of North College Hill by the village council for precisely this purpose. The previous mayor was forced to resign when he aligned himself with the 75 percent of North College Hill voters who signed a petition demanding abolition of the village’s liquor court. Pugh took his appointment as a mandate and soon launched raids throughout western Hamilton County.
Pugh’s local reign of terror was just a minor skirmish in a statewide war incited by the Anti-Saloon League. Giddy with victory as the 18th Amendment became law, the League endeavored to crush “wet” resistance. The plan was to replace local governments’ former reliance on liquor taxes with a new addiction to liquor fines.
While federal law prohibited only the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages, the Anti-Saloon League engineered Ohio’s “Crabbe Law,” which banned even simple possession of any sort of alcohol. Freelance liquor agents, promised a share of any resulting fines, ran amuck clutching wads of fill-in-the-blank warrants and arresting anyone with a bottle of anything—even housewives hoarding nothing more than vanilla extract.
The Anti-Saloon League recruited a New York vigilante named Harry Zimmerman as Mayor Pugh’s chief enforcer, his salary based on 15 percent of any fines collected in the North College Hill mayor’s court. Zimmerman placed advertisements in the local papers, offering rewards for tips about anyone hiding hootch.
There is no historic marker today at 6404 Cheviot Road in White Oak, but that’s where Pugh overplayed his hand on the morning of August 23, 1924. Zimmerman barged into the home of Edward Tumey, a carpenter who was away at work, and badgered Tumey’s wife Magdalena (Lena) into confessing that there were jugs of wine (blackberry, red raspberry, and cherry) stored in her basement. Zimmerman’s agents also found a gallon of moonshine. Ed and Lena Tumey insisted the agents themselves had planted that bottle, because neither claimed to have seen it before.
Neither Zimmerman nor Mayor Pugh knew that a Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas judge had been waiting for precisely this raid to demolish what he saw as an unjust and lawless travesty of judicial ethics. Although Judge Stanley Struble was a teetotaler and never touched alcohol, he loathed Ohio’s liquor control system. Struble reasoned that the mayor was the arresting officer, prosecuting attorney, and judge all rolled into one. Even worse, none of these roles earned a salary unless the victim arrested by the mayor and charged by the mayor was found guilty by the mayor—a clear conflict of interest.
Struble quietly informed a number of defense attorneys that he was looking for a test case to attack the Ohio system. He had already drafted his ruling; all he needed was an appropriate case. Attorney Harry H. Shafer notified Judge Struble that the Tumey case had all the necessary elements.
When Ed Tumey appeared for trial in North College Hill, Shafer motioned to dismiss on grounds that Mayor Pugh was incapable of providing a fair trial. Pugh overruled the objection and found Tumey guilty, assessing a fine of $100, of which $12 went directly into the mayor’s pocket. Shafer immediately filed an appeal.
The appeal brought the case to the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, where Judge Struble was waiting, with his decision already written. Struble ruled against the mayor’s court and in Tumey’s favor. The Anti-Saloon League appealed the case to the Ohio Court of Appeals, who sided with Pugh, as did the Ohio Supreme Court. Throughout the appeal process, the League launched a smear campaign to paint Judge Struble as soft on crime.
Once the Ohio Supreme Court ruled, the only recourse was the U.S. Supreme Court. A group of lawyers convened by Struble took the case to Washington, D.C., where it became known as Tumey v. Ohio.
On March 7, 1927, another Cincinnati judicial luminary, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, issued a unanimous ruling. Taft thunderously denounced Mayor Pugh, Ohio’s mayor’s courts, the Crabbe Law, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Ohio Supreme Court. In ruling for Tumey, the Supreme Court struck a monumental blow for judicial ethics and a fatal wound to Prohibition. Judge Stanley Struble was triumphantly vindicated.
Hundreds of Ohio prisoners, forced behind bars to work off their liquor fines at 60 cents a day, were released on appeal. Although the Tumey ruling did not abolish mayor’s courts, they were irreversibly hobbled. Still, as recently as 2017, Ohio’s 295 remaining mayor’s courts processed more than 263,000 cases during the year.