3 lawyers locked in probate race

WARREN – The winner of the May 6 Democratic primary in the Probate Court race would be poised to begin a new era for a court that operated under the same judge for nearly 35 years.

Judge Thomas A. Swift, who joined the court in 1979, was re-elected to his final six-year term in 2008 since state law calls for an age limitation after 70 years.

Barring any last-minute independent party filings by May 5, one of the candidates – attorneys Patricia Leopardi Knepp, William Flevares or James A. Fredericka – would take his place.

Each of the competitors sports a platform that features ideas on modernizing the court and spreading word about the court’s mission.

Fredericka, who already collected the party endorsement, is calling for an ”education outreach.”

”Probate court is more than filing papers. It’s about people. However, many, including our seniors, do not understand the court. In addition to the information on the court’s website, the judge and magistrates could do a better job of providing free educational forums,” Fredericka said.

He wants the court to reach out by going to senior centers, churches and community events to inform the seniors and others, in attempts to alleviate fears and misunderstandings about the court operations.

Fredericka, a one-time assistant county prosecutor before going into private practice, points out that there are legal, cost-efficient ”vehicles” available to assist the public in managing their affairs and estates.

The Notre Dame and Case Western Reserve Law School graduate also is promoting a stronger mediation program and a cooperative budget management philosophy among the other county officeholders.

Fredericka also says his years of representing school boards around the state puts him in a good position to handle a court budget and human resources issues that arise with a staff of more than two dozen.

Knepp likes to point out that the court is ”not just cases with numbers. They’re people.”

”In some instances, based upon personal finances and low income, people come to the court to attempt to file matters on their own. Without an understanding of the process, and clerks legally not permitted to advise them, some people do not complete or follow through with the process,” Knepp said.

She wants to establish an indigency program to assist with costs or even waive some of the fees for people who qualify.

Knepp, the daughter of an attorney and granddaughter of a municipal court judge, also proposes using a staff attorney to answer questions and advise people about the probate court procedures.

Besides more accessibility to the court, Knepp, like Fredericka, wants to expand outreach programs. She said there’s a need to reach out to people confined to hospitals, nursing facilities and even their own homes.

”The court’s protections are vast, and yet so many people want to avoid probate. Many do so because they do not understand the process or from fear of it. To resolve it, I would create a better understanding of the public as to the services and processes of the probate court.

”I would post educational information on the court’s website, create pamphlets for distribution and use seminars designed for an audience from the general public,” Knepp said.

Although all three candidates claim experience in handling probate court cases, Flevares is more specific, pointing out that he has handled about 600 cases in probate court and 400 of those in Trumbull County.

”I’ve also done more than 100 (cases) in Mahoning County, but actually represented clients in 13 different probate courts across the state,” Flevares said.

He proposes more mediations: ”We need more of it. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an effective tool and other courts have implemented it.”

”I have seen people suffer due to the death of a family member or the need for a guardianship for a loved one. No one can make their pain go away, but I want to run a court that makes the process easier for these folks, not harder,” Flevares said.

”We need transparency and accountability in probate court. A judge is a public servant. A judge must serve with both authority and humility. I will bring both of these traits to the court. I will be transparent in the way I do business and be accountable to the people,” he said.

”There needs to be better balance between giving people their day in court and allowing cases to drag on needlessly and endlessly. As a lawyer who has handled many contested matters in probate court, I know that cases can go on much longer than anyone hopes or expects. Some of that is unavoidable.

”Still, a judge must not allow cases to drag on without reason. When that happens, it benefits the lawyers and no one else,” Flevares said.