OTTAWA — As a judge, Randall Basinger has as strong a command of the courtroom through a powerful presence and a booming voice that one attorney said he imagined the gatekeeper to heaven may sound like.
Anyone who has ever been in Basinger’s courtroom through the years knows exactly who was in charge. The judge can be an intimidating figure but for anyone who has spent enough time with him no one can question his professional demeanor, his respect for the system, or his caring heart.
The judge knows how he is perceived but playfully said there were plenty of people in his courtroom who he just had no control over no matter how hard he tried.
Every time elementary school students would visit, he would talk to them and show off his magnificent courtroom with quartersawed Oak woodwork that displays remarkable craftsmanship from more than 100 years ago.
During the tour, children would see a picture of him 30 years ago when he was 34 and one would inevitably would ask him something about his hair, or lack of today compared to the picture.
“The third-graders come in and they ask all sorts of questions and I show them the picture of the judges and they say, “Where’s your picture?’ and I point to it and they say, ‘Where’s your picture?’ They deny it’s even me,” he said.
Joking aside, Basinger said he loves children and passing on knowledge about the court as well as the history of the courthouse, especially to children, has been very rewarding.
“I always enjoy having kids come in,” he said.
End of an era
The 64-year-old judge is winding down his 30 years on the bench after deciding not to run again. He unsuccessfully sought a position on the court of appeals last year in what was the hardest year of his life with the death of his wife.
While his judicial career is ending, he still plans to continue his legal career that is 40 years and counting. He has some offers he’s considering to keep practicing but hasn’t made any decisions yet. He said he can take assignments as a visiting judge, also. He teaches trial advocacy at Ohio Northern University law school and constitutional law at Bluffton University, two jobs he really enjoys.
A competing offer from his two daughters to move to California and be closer to his grandchildren also is something he is giving a lot of thought to. He also has a son in Illinois with whom he plans to spend more time.
Last week, Basinger sat down in his office to talk about the last 30 years. His most memorable case is one he prosecuted before he took the bench in 1987, Kenneth Richey. While Basinger could not handle the case later as a judge because of his role as a prosecutor, he was well aware of Richey’s appeals and his release from death row to become a free man after a plea deal.
“The Richey case was extremely high profile. The pope made a statement on the case. [Actress] Susan Sarandon made a statement,” he said.
Shortly after that, Richey called and left a message on the court’s answering machine threatening Basinger, which earned him a trip back to prison for several years. Richey has since been released and as far as Basinger knows lives in Columbus. The judge said Richey has made a handful of other threats against him, something he always took seriously to make sure he and his family were protected.
He said despite everything that happened in the Richey case he remains convinced as ever Richey was guilty.
“I prosecuted Richey. He has made repeated threats to kill me. I remain convinced that the original verdict, which found him guilty of aggravated murder and put him on death row, was correct,” Basinger said.
As a judge, Basinger has handled many high-profile cases and numerous death penalty cases including three that sent men to death row and one as a visiting judge on a panel in Wood County that ended with the execution of man who killed a woman.
“That’s a tough thing and that should be a difficult thing whether you believe in the death penalty or whether you don’t believe in the death penalty to sign your name on a document that imposes the death penalty,” he said.
While the murder cases bring about details and crime scene photos that sometimes are almost unbearable to see or think about, the judge has the hardest time with crimes involving children, especially sex crimes.
“Cases involving child abuse or child sexual abuse are the most difficult and the hardest to put out of your mind,” he said.
The judge, however, said he found a way to clear his mind of most of the cases when he left the courtroom each day so he could be at peace outside of work.
“I have largely been able to leave it at the court,” he said.
Basinger’s original plans as a child were to go to medical school and become a doctor but he always had an interest in politics and history that led him to decide in high school while growing up on a farm near Columbus Grove that he wanted to be an attorney.
Basinger said the most influential person on his legal career was former Judge Robert Simmons of Lake County Common Pleas Court for whom he clerked in the 1970s.
“He just had an incredible manner in the courtroom of respecting people and just being regarded as judge,” Basinger said.
Basinger tried to model himself after Simmons.
“One piece of advice he gave was how I use the power of the court particularly in a smaller county,” Basinger said. “Treating people with respect was also part of his advice. Regardless of why people are in the courtroom and sometimes they are in the courtroom for some bad things, people needed to be treated with respect.
He also understands many people have very limited involvement with the courts, sometimes it may only be through jury duty so Basinger always wanted people to know he had the utmost respect for the process.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Basinger said, “As somebody that listened, that treated people always with respect that tried to arrive at a just result and I hope they look at me as I was a student of the law and that I worked at getting the right result.”
Retired Judge Richard Warren of Allen County Common Pleas Court said not only was Basinger known as a “no nonsense judge” but someone who was very competent in the law.
“His influence, insight into issues was very respected by other judges. He was always prepared and very well-respected by other judges and the bar [attorneys] in general,” Warren said.
While Warren said he’s sure attorneys complained among themselves, at times, about Basinger’s strict courtroom, he said the complaints would stop there.
“It wasn’t because he didn’t know what he was talking about,” Warren said.
Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers began practicing before Basinger in the early 1990s and one of the first things Lammers observed was Basinger’s presence.
“He had such a commanding presence when he speaks. Whether it’s to us, the defendant, the jury. I always thought when I went to meet my maker, my judgment day, the voice I would hear, I would not be shocked if it was a similar voice that I hear emanating from Judge Basinger,” Lammers said. “It’s a dramatic tone that he can use at times. That’s part of his mystique and persona.”
Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick began his career as a felony assistant prosecutor in Basinger’s courtroom.
“I consider him the most formative figure in my career. He was always fair and consistent and runs a very tight courtroom,” Waldick said.
While Waldick learned an immeasurable amount from Basinger whether through his words, actions or opinions, he also had time to seek advice after cases were complete. Waldick always wanted to know how to improve himself or his presentation in the courtroom and Basinger had advice just like he did for other attorneys who sought it.
“I thought he treated everybody fairly and consistently. He’s a student of the law. Very knowledgeably in the law. He always researched every issue that came before him,” Waldick said.
Basinger always was professional no matter the circumstances of any case and expected the attorneys before him to be professionals, Waldick said.
“He really is a model of professionalism and judicial demeanor,” Waldick said. “If you’re a young attorney and want to figure out how to act, look at Judge Basinger.”
While Basinger is an imposing figure in the courtroom, one quality many may be unfamiliar with is Basinger’s big heart for the community. He has done an endless amount of work for causes such as Habitat for Humanity and historical preservation efforts especially with the courthouse including writing a book about it, Lammers said.
While Basinger has handle nearly 10,000 cases, which include criminal, civil and divorces, and he’s seen many changes and some things that don’t change.
In criminal cases, he has people who he has seen three or more times.
“I tell them they are getting too old for this and they need to stop and move on, and their response is, ‘I should have outgrown it by now,’” he said.
He also has some generations of families that have made their way through his criminal court, including grandfathers as young men, then their sons and then grandsons.
The judge has seen changes in the law that affect the way he does his job such as who he can send to prison based on the crimes committed. He’s watched the way drug addicts are dealt with change from locking them up for long sentences years ago to modern efforts to get them treatment, which he said is the best choice.
Drugs and drug offenders have changed. Drugs have gone from marijuana to crack cocaine to methamphetamine to the heroin epidemic of today. He said he fears the heroin problem has not peaked and he is not sure when it will or what untold damage it will bring.
But he’s sure on one thing, heroin has affected many more people than any of the other drugs he’s seen through the years and it does not discriminate who it destroys.
“There are so many spin-off problems,” he said. “It’s causing a series of secondary problems including mom and dad out of the house so it causes economic problems and it causes kids to have to be in juvenile court and foster care,” he said.
Even with all his wisdom, the judge struggles to offer any better solutions than are being tried today to combat drugs and help addicts.
“The problem is difficult and the solutions will be difficult. It’s going to be long-term,” he said.
The judge also has seen a significant increase in child sex crimes. He said a change in reporting requirements by professionals who deal with children and a better understanding of the long-term effects on children has led to more cases reported.
Basinger said his most rewarding experiences have been helping people. He has helped settle lawsuits that both sides may be happy about or can live with, and he has been able to resolve numerous foreclosure cases that allow families to keep their homes without being sold at a sheriff’s auction.
“Essentially what this job is about is resolving a lot of problems,” Basinger said.
Basinger also has felt very privileged to work in the Putnam County Courthouse, from a historical perspective. His courtroom and the craftsmanship in the woodwork is something he marvels at to this day.
“For me that has been an added bonus of being on the bench here. It’s just a great place. A beautiful, beautiful setting,” he said.
The judge also is very appreciative of all the people who have worked for or with him through the years from his staff to people in the clerk of court’s office who many in the public do not know their names but without them the court could not function. He said he appreciates the attorneys who have come before him and professionalism they have displayed.
As his judicial career comes to a close in several weeks, Basinger said there really isn’t anything he would go back and change. He said it’s still hard to believe he’s been a judge for 30 years and that it’s ending but he also understands that is part of life and he looks forward to new opportunities.
“I feel incredibly privilege to be here this long and to just have the confidence of the citizens,” he said.
Reach Greg Sowinski at 567-242-0464 or on Twitter @Lima_Sowinski.