Ernest is ready for new role as judge

Ernest is ready for new role as judge
Scott Daniels

Judge Mike Ernest


As newly sworn in Judge Mike Ernest assumes his duties at the Tuscarawas County Court of Common Pleas, he is careful to express gratitude for the many people who have helped him throughout his career, eventually enabling him to successfully run for the seat last year against attorney Steve Thomakos, husband of sitting Common Pleas Court Judge Elizabeth Thomakos, and attorney Marvin Fete, both of New Philadelphia.

Ernest succeeds Judge Edward O’Farrell, who has retired after serving 39 years in the job. At a swearing-in ceremony held Dec. 29, O’Farrell administered the oath to his successor in what are now the chambers of Judge Ernest.

The first thing Ernest is anxious to address as he takes on his new tasks as judge is concern about the restored Quaker Theater in downtown New Philadelphia, which he owns.

“Everyone asks me constantly if the theater will reopen or if anything will change, and the answer is that it will reopen and nothing will change. I can continue to have a hand in a private, family-owned business, and I have people in place who will continue to do a great job as soon as we can safely reopen amid concerns of maintaining proper social distancing," Ernest said.

Ernest is a New Philadelphia native and took the kind of unassuming path to his ultimate career that demonstrates what is possible by relying on local institutions and making the most of opportunities.

“Except for time away at college, I have lived here all my life,” the father of four said. “And I’m proud to tell people my first two years of college were at Kent State University Tuscarawas. You won’t find anybody who is a bigger champion of Kent Tusc. campus.”

Ernest explained the single downside of his election to the bench: He is forced, by state rules, to resign his position on the board of the Tuscarawas campus of Kent State University. “It truly pains me to have to do that,” he said.

After graduating from Kent State, Ernest attended Cleveland Marshall University law school, a part of Cleveland State University.

“I distinctly remember how I came to choose the law for a career," Ernest said. “I probably was not the most diligent high school student, really. I was more interested in sports and having fun. I was kind of in the shadow of my older sisters, who were very good students. Academics just weren’t my first priority.”

But when he began studying at Kent State, all that changed. “My outlook changed entirely, and I was always stressed about doing well. It became apparent to me after the first semester that I really liked studying in a university environment and knew I could do well,” Ernest said.

At an assembly at Kent State in 1990, Ernest heard two practicing attorneys speak, and he silently decided he wanted to be a lawyer. “I kept it to myself. I didn’t think anyone would greet the news that I wanted to go to law school with any seriousness. But eventually, I needed some real information about how to get started and had to share it with someone,” he said.

Ernest remembers his parents being a little incredulous. “I remember my dad asking, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’”

Ernest dug in his heels, slugged away at his journalism undergrad studies and prepared for an eventual move to law school and a career. “Journalism was my plan B,” he said.

After passing the Bar Examination in 1996, the trajectory of his life began to take on the form that would mark his career, as he found himself learning under the first of what would be many mentors.

“The best career decision of my life was when I took a job working for attorney Mike Johnson. It was a firm of remarkable individuals, mentors, role models. I really couldn’t have done any better,” Ernest said.

Johnson was New Philadelphia law director at the time and was responsible for appointing prosecutors for handling misdemeanor cases within the county. Ernest, a newly minted lawyer fresh from law school, began working as prosecuting attorney in January 1997, a role he would continue to play until assuming his new job as common pleas judge this year.

“It was an ideal situation for me. A young attorney could be handed cases that needed research and work,” just the kind of tasks Ernest enjoyed and preferred. “Looking back, it was the best possible place I could have started. I had an absolutely fantastic experience. It was the best job in my opinion. There was no observation time; it was learning by immersion.”

In 2001 the opportunity came to move to the Tuscarawas County Prosecutor’s Office. “They contacted me, and the prosecutor at the time, Amanda Spies Bornhorst, explained to me there had been a change in state law making the sale of cigarettes to minors a more serious offense,” Ernest said.

Prosecutors across the state expected a tidal wave of cigarette cases. “I went back to my office and asked the other attorneys if this was a real opportunity or not. I had a family and was concerned that all these underage cigarette cases might not materialize,” Ernest said.

Indeed, they didn’t. “I think I prosecuted one such case,” Ernest said. “Nothing ever came of it.”

Still, his responsibilities grew in the new position, and Ernest showed himself to be a young lawyer who was prepared to take on just about any case, viewing each as an opportunity to learn.

Ernest lists one mentor after another who gave him new chances or opportunities. “If you would show willingness, there were always opportunities, and I don’t think I turned down anything. It was always fascinating, always an interesting experience, and I think I got the maximum benefit from my time there,” he said.

In taking a variety of cases, Ernest was able to gain experience in matters from the rather mundane to the quite serious including aggravated murder cases. His respect for those around him grew.

"The thing I’ve learned, at least here in Tuscarawas County," Ernest said, "is that the people involved in cases want to get it right. They want to do the right thing. It’s not about statistics or about sticking it to people but about justice and doing things the right way to achieve a just outcome. Men and women in law enforcement are great people to work with."

Ernest said he feels fully prepared for the job ahead and recognizes his predecessor has handled the courtroom in ways that are unique to him.

“Of course, Judge O’Farrell is very much his own person. One thing that will not change is that what I have learned from him about treating people with courtesy and the utmost respect and to try to make them feel comfortable as they come into an environment that can be very uncomfortable — that will not change. He has a way of putting everyone at ease, and I hope to bring that to the courtroom as well. Judge Thomakos also brings that kind of ability to put people at ease in difficult surroundings, and I know the public has responded very positively to that from both of them. I hope I can bring that to the Common Please Courtroom as well.”

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