MOUNT VERNON — Ohio’s county recorders are being sued over old property records that include racist provisions. An anonymous Cincinnati couple filed a suit on Jan. 19 naming 86 county recorders, two county fiscal officers and a county engineer for publishing old deeds that contain restrictions such as prohibiting sale to non-Caucasians or to “persons of African descent.”
The provisions have been void since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that such racial restrictions were not enforceable in court, and are simply ignored if encountered.
Knox County Recorder John Lybarger is named in the suit, but none of the documents cited in the suit came from Knox County. Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher said it is not known if any such deeds are on file in Knox County.
Lybarger said he knows no details about the suit, as he turned the notification over to Thatcher and Thatcher later told him the County Risk Sharing Authority is handling the case.
“I haven’t heard anything since,” he said.
The suit puzzles him because the deeds and other documents reflect the status at the time it was filed. Once a document is filed by the recorder, “nothing changes.”
Even correcting a misspelling requires another document, Lybarger said, and the complete history of a property can be traced through the years.
If a property once had such an offensive provision attached, that’s simply part of its history.
The couple filing the suit requested specific deeds from 29 counties around the state and is citing them as example of a statewide problem. They claim their civil rights were violated by publishing these restrictions and that the recorders violated the 14th Amendment by not concealing or removing the restrictions.
The filers want the offensive documents sequestered or, if they have to be published, to have the offensive portions redacted.
They also ask for unspecified punitive damages, their attorney fees to be paid and for “other relief” as determined by the court.
Sixty-five counties are represented by CORSA, which has filed a motion for the judge to dismiss the case. A ruling on the motion was expected April 15, but the plaintiffs have sought an extension.
CORSA attorneys say the recorders don’t have the right to remove the racial restrictions, they simply file the deeds and make them available on request.
Thatcher said the gist of the motion to dismiss is that “under Ohio law, recorders record deeds, mortgages, plats and other written instruments required by the Ohio Revised Code. Recorders may refuse to record a document only when recording is not required under Ohio law, or if the instrument is false or fraudulent.”
Thatcher explained that “the plaintiffs claim the recorders are violating a federal law that prohibits ‘making, printing or publishing any notice’ with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates a preference, limitation or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin, or an intention to make such preference, limitation or discrimination. In the motion to dismiss the recorders argue that they don’t make, print or publish anything, they merely record legal instruments as required by the Ohio Revised Code. Although racially discriminatory deeds, etc., from days gone by are reprehensible, the court should not punish the county recorders for being the custodians of these old documents.
CORSA also argues that the complainants cannot file anonymously. Because the provisions are no longer enforced in any part of Ohio, their civil rights were not violated.
Some of the deeds cited for racist provisions are for individual properties; others are restrictions for entire subdivisions.
The firm of Isaac, Brant, Ledman and Teetor of Columbus is representing CORSA.
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