Endorsements 2018 - not meant to dictate but to give voters more insights: Elizabeth Sullivan

September 7, 2018

Endorsements 2018 - not meant to dictate but to give voters more insights: Elizabeth Sullivan

CLEVELAND -- Today, the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer begins to roll out its Nov. 6 general election endorsements, starting with judicial races. 

Inevitably this process generates questions.

Why do we endorse at all? And why so early, with the election nearly two months off? And what goes into the process?

And why will we be endorsing in so many judges’ races, featuring some candidates many voters might never have heard of, but skipping a lot of congressional contests and state House and Senate races with marquee names - but usually a very foregone conclusion?

The short answer is that our editorial board wants to make a difference, and we can do that best in tighter contests and in judicial races where, too often, never having heard of either candidate, voters make their choices based on familiar last names, with little more to go on. 

We want voters to have a lot more to go on. Our endorsements aren’t the last word; they’re meant to be just part what voters can and should reference.

Our endorsements are just one way voters can educate themselves about options, issues and what’s at stake for our community. Other excellent sources of information include cleveland.com stories, the League of Women Voters’ voters’ guide, the Judicial Votes Count website at the University of Akron and bar association ratings of judicial candidates.

As part of our efforts to be as transparent as possible, we also plan to post online with our endorsements full audio of each endorsement session. Those interviews, with opposing candidates present, can give voters more of a flavor of the candidates and their responses, the issues discussed and -- very key in today’s contentious world -- the way in which candidates treat one another. 

Transparency matters, which is why we also aim to explain in each endorsement why we chose Candidate B over Candidate A, and the downsides we saw in the contenders. These are our opinions, granted -- but without sharing the basis for those opinions, as subjective as those conclusions might appear, we have ill-served the overriding goal of shedding light on a race.

Transparency is one big reason why, in this election cycle, more than in prior ones, we have found ourselves at odds in key ways with the Judge4Yourself process by which four local bar associations rate judicial candidates who will be on the ballot in Cuyahoga County.

Make no mistake: Judge4Yourself is an admirable and needed way in which local lawyers can provide their own ratings based not just on personal knowledge but also a fairly grueling process by which candidates fill out extensive questionnaires about their legal experience and backgrounds and are interviewed at length. No other county in Ohio has anything quite like it -- and many times it’s proved a needed antidote to the “name game” where candidates with attractive ballot names but little relevant experience can win by default. It also can make a difference where party identification in this largely Democratic county can overshadow other attributes. 

Ohio has a peculiar system in which judicial candidates run with party labels in the primary but aren’t identified by party in the general election. However, the political parties usually make up for this by letting voters know who’s on their party-endorsed list of judicial candidates.

Yet the Judge4Yourself ratings process isn’t transparent.

Why would an apparently experienced lawyer who’s good at what he does but maybe not yet judicial-robe-ready and who participated in the process get a “not recommended” -- effectively a zero? We found ourselves wondering just that question with one candidate. Judge4Yourself won’t discuss the specific basis for that or other individual ratings.

Judge4Yourself shares the issues it considers in its rating process -- “integrity, judicial temperament, diligence, professional competence, and community understanding.” It has worked hard to increase the diversity of voices included in the process, with the women’s bar, the Norman S. Minor Bar and criminal defense lawyers’ bar also participating and reaching independent ratings conclusions.

But surely the public deserves to know why a candidate is so bad he or she is not recommended.

Could it also be that the internal voting process at Judge4Yourself is less than optimal and too reliant, despite the lengthy, involved process, on popularity, or politics, or familiarity or all of the above? Judge4Yourself clearly works hard to keep that from happening. But more transparency and perhaps a review of some of its internal processes would go a long way to addressing recent criticism.

Several judicial candidates this election cycle told us they chose not to participate in Judge4Yourself after a group of black pastors in April criticized its ratings process for -- in their view -- contributing to the lack of diversity on the Cuyahoga County General Division bench. There is not a single black male or Hispanic judge currently serving among the 34 judges in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court’s general division. The pastors felt the coalition was giving unfairly low marks to minority candidates.

The widely respected Ronald B. Adrine, the retired former Cleveland Municipal Court presiding judge, challenged their conclusions in a cleveland.com/Plain Dealer letter, noting that the state’s largest black lawyers’ bar participates.

“Most downgraded by the process had issues -- personality, ethical or other -- regardless of race, and not everyone denied a recommendation was a person of color!” Adrine wrote. ”...We need to understand the importance of having qualified judicial officers of color on the bench, select them, recruit them, groom them, support them and then elect them. The votes exist.” 

Having a more diverse bench is another reason education and outreach matter.

Finally, why are we endorsing so early? Simply put, because of early voting.

Early voting begins in about a month. It’s not too early to start learning about candidates in the races that typically attract the least attention -- the judicial races. 

As our endorsements are published, we want to hear from you, with your letters and comments highlighting the good, the bad, the ugly and the skeptical. But the most important goal is to be engaged, and to get informed.

Elizabeth Sullivan is director of opinion for cleveland.com and leads the editorial board for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com.

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