Prior to the creation of a Municipal Court system, Toledo, like many cities, had for years used what was called a “Police Court”. In Toledo, that court was synonymous for several decades with one man: Judge James Austin.
Judge Austin was undoubtedly one of the city’s most powerful and colorful characters of the early 1900’s. According to some accounts, he was the compelling reason that Toledo decided to create a municipal court system of four judges and structured the city’s court system.
It was said that a “certain class of citizens was being favored by Judge Austin.” In one edition of the ‘Police Journal’ of 1922, it was noted that “he withstood the continual howl of the newspapers and the public” for his actions in court.
Despite his critics, Judge Austin remained a popular figure in the city and was reelected to his judicial post many times over, even after the city had gone to a municipal court, Judge Austin was reelected to it and named its chief judge.
Even after assuming his new role as head of the court Judge James Austin continued to create headlines.
The ‘New York Times’ carried one story from 1920, when Austin couldn’t decide the guilt or innocence of a local grocer charged with running a gambling operation and bribery. So he asked the court audience to vote on it. He handed out 34 ballots and the vote came back 27-7 in favor of acquittal.
In another infamous case, a group of southern musicians had been arrested in the city’s notorious tenderloin district for panhandling, Judge Austin decided their best punishment would be to go get their instruments and come back and give the court a make shift concert, which they did.
It was his creativity in sentencing and his reputation for leniency that often sparked the most furor, for Judge Austin was of the mindset that a jail sentence was not always the best form of punishment. He believed it did little good to sentence poor people to the workhouse for crimes that “rich people” got away with.
He was known as the “Golden Rule” judge, believing that to be fair, you had to understand what people were going through and that sometimes the heart was a better measure of punishment than laws.
In 1908, back when Toledo had a workhouse near Swan Creek and City Park known as “Duck Island”, Judge Austin found himself “guilty” of curiosity and sentenced himself to a “day” at the prison, as an inmate, to see what the experience of a prisoner is really like.
On a bitterly cold day in February of that year, Judge Austin reported to “Duck Island” and subjected himself to endure the indignities of being just another inmate. Citizen Austin was treated no differently than others, ordered to strip and get into prison togs, march to the dining hall and was sent to a pond to cut ice for the ice boxes at the jail.
Upon his release, Austin said, he would have to do some “tall thinking” in the future before sending a man to the workhouse. This was one of the reasons that Judge Austin had earned the nickname of the “Golden Rule” judge.
Another reason for his sobriquet was that the good judge was heavily influenced by the former Toledo Mayor Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, who also believed that poor men deserve “second chances.” Like Judge Austin, Mayor Jones believed the court should not always punish, but serve to reform. He frequently took sides in favor of keeping families together.
In one case in 1909, a young girl appeared before his court to urge the judge to “Let Papa go” after her father had been arrested for “riding the rails.” Judge Austin listened to his heart and released her father from custody.
Austin was eager to listen to children in his court. In another case when a young “newsboy” was brought before his court on an assault charge against another “newsie.” Judge Austin decided to allow the young “newsboys” to serve as the judge and jury to decide verdict and punishment.
Judge Austin’s tenure as the “Police Court Judge” began in 1908 when he took the reigns of the court and lasted on the bench for another 20 years. Within days after taking over the police court, the Toledo News Bee reported that Austin would not send a man to jail or fine him for drunkeness explaining that the Judge thought it was a disease. And one afflicted with it can no more combat it than he could typhoid fever. It was also noted that a defendant would not be sent to the work house on a first offense, however wife beaters would be shown no mercy. Shortly after assuming the robe, the Judge sentenced a man to 60 days in jail for taking a razor “strop” to his wife for punishment of an unknown transgression.
A native of Rhode Island, and a former Board of Elections member and police court prosecutor, Austin had been in some sort of public employment in Toledo for over 30 years. He was also a Unitarian as he was the son of a Unitarian minister.
Despite his taste for the dramatic while behind the bench, he was said to be a man of modest means, and an even temper. He didn’t drive a car, but took street cars and walked to work each day.
As a writer, he was also was popular on the speaking circuit as he tried to spread his ideas on how the “Golden Rule” should be applied as a tenet of justice. He was, by today’s standards, “liberal” of thought and was friends with many in Toledo’s so called “underworld.”
Judge Austin could be harsh and stern with those who took advantage of the poor and the weak. He was also a robust voice in the anti-gun movement of that era and often opined that guns had no place in a modern society.
It also became Austin’s goal to convince the city to give up its workhouse on Duck Island and start a prison farm.
Within ten years, the prison farm in Whitehouse was built which remained opened for another eight decades before it was eventually shutdown in the 1980’s. It stood vacant for decades and was recently demolished.