Why voting in judicial contests really does matter in Ohio: Thomas Suddes

September 9, 2018

Why voting in judicial contests really does matter in Ohio: Thomas Suddes

Some of Ohioans’ most significant decisions may be afterthoughts to many voters: electing two Supreme Court justices in November, plus Ohio Court of Appeals judges.

Governors order thus-and-such, and the General Assembly, when it isn’t recycling hot air, sticks its nose into everything it can. But the men and women whom voters elect to courts, especially appellate courts, can have as much to say about Ohioans’ lives as a governor or the legislature.

That’s especially so when an injured Ohioan files a personal injury lawsuit or appeals the denial of an insurance or workers’ compensation claim. The state Supreme Court referees Ohio utility rates. It disciplines lawyers and judges. And the high court’s chief justice (Greater Cleveland Republican Maureen O’Connor) picks visiting judges when one’s needed in a given case or courtroom.

Two of the Ohio Supreme Court’s seven seats are on November’s ballot. One pair of Supreme Court candidates: Republican Judge Craig Baldwin, of Newark, of the 5th Ohio District Court of Appeals, versus Democratic Judge Michael Donnelly, of Cleveland Heights, of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Baldwin earned his law degree at Capital University’s Law School; Donnelly earned his law degree at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

The other pair of Supreme Court candidates on November’s ballot: Republican Supreme Court Justice Mary DeGenaro, of suburban Youngstown, versus Democratic Judge Melody Stewart, of Cleveland, of the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals. Each judge earned her law degree at Cleveland-Marshall.

Republican Gov. John Kasich appointed DeGenaro, then on the 7th Ohio District Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court on Jan. 25. DeGenaro succeeded Democratic Justice William O’Neill, of Chagrin Falls. O’Neill resigned from the high court to run unsuccessfully for this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination. DeGenaro’s appointment made the Supreme Court’s lineup 7-0 Republican.

Ohio’s all-Republican Supreme Court gets more attention (from non-lawyers, anyway) than the Ohio Court of Appeals, which has 12 districts, including Cuyahoga County’s 8th District. But as an appeals court candidate recently said, the appeals court may be an Ohioan’s court of last resort because the state Supreme Court rules on a limited number of cases.

Judicial Votes Count is a nonpartisan website that can help an Ohio voter learn who is running for the judgeships on November’s ballot. Judicial Votes Count’s partners are the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron; the League of Women Voters of Ohio; the Ohio Association of Broadcasters; the Ohio News Media Association; the Ohio State Bar Association; and Chief Justice O’Connor.

In Greater Cleveland, candidates are contesting appellate seats in the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County); the 9th Ohio District Court of Appeals (Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne counties); and the 11th Ohio Court of Appeals (Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Portage and Trumbull counties).

Officially, Ohio courts and judges are nonpartisan. But the title of a celebrated 1971 study by the late Kathleen L. Barber, a distinguished scholar on the faculty of John Carroll University, and the study itself, published in the Ohio State Law Journal, told the real story: “Ohio Judicial Elections: Nonpartisan Premises With Partisan Results.”

The bottom line is that Republicans tend to dominate Ohio’s judicial branch, especially its upper reaches. For a time, Ohio Democrats and their labor union allies laser-focused on the state’s judiciary, notably the Ohio Supreme Court. And in November 1976, Democrats finally gained a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court, which was Democrats’ first such majority in eons. They elected Justices Ralph S. Locher, once Cleveland’s mayor, and A. William Sweeney, a Cincinnatian with roots in Mahoning County.

Ten years later, in 1986, Democrats lost that Supreme Court majority when Columbus Republican Thomas J. Moyer unseated Chief Justice Frank D. Celebrezze, a Greater Cleveland Democrat. Republicans have run the high court ever since.

Maybe the Ohio Republicans’ recapture of a state Supreme Court majority, 32 years ago this November, was just a reversion to the ways things usually had been in Ohio’s judicial branch.

Or maybe it was because Ohio Democrats and their labor union allies took their eyes off the ball. If so, Democrats and the unions might want to reconsider – given the stakes. 

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-999-4689

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