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Pay attention to Ohio Supreme Court races. Your rights are on the line: Brent Larkin

October 11, 2018

Pay attention to Ohio Supreme Court races. Your rights are on the line: Brent Larkin

CLEVELAND -- In ways big and small, our state and federal supreme courts make decisions that affect the lives of every Ohioan.  

As we’ve been recently reminded, the U.S. Supreme Court selection process – controlled by the U.S. president and U.S. Senate - receives more negative attention than the Founding Fathers intended.  

The Ohio Supreme Court selection process – governed entirely by voters – receives precious little attention. At times, the results reflect as much.  

Decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court can have enormous impact. The court’s 1997 ruling in the landmark DeRolph case found to be unconstitutional the way the state funded each of the state’s more than 600 school districts.  

More recent decisions have abrogated (often unfairly) the rights of local governments to regulate deadly weapons, predatory lending, oil and gas drilling, traffic laws, and hiring requirements.  

And an August ruling allowed the Ohio Department of Education to reclaim $80 million in taxpayer money wrongfully paid the now-closed Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) for allegedly padding its attendance records.  

Nevertheless, as Election Day nears, private polling shows about 70 percent of the voters in the two contests for seats on the Ohio Supreme Court are undecided.

Voters tend to pay more attention to a race for township clerk than they do to the state’s most important judicial body.  

Last time that wasn’t the case was 32 years ago, when stories by Plain Dealer reporters Mary Anne Sharkey and the late Gary Webb revealed the court, led by Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze, a Cleveland-area Democrat, was awash in patronage, favoritism, vindictive punishment of enemies and a host of other suspicious activities.  

Celebrezze was a magic political name in Ohio politics. But in the election of 1986, the name game didn’t matter. Angry voters threw Celebrezze out, replacing him as chief justice with Republican Thomas Moyer, then a little-known but highly respected appellate judge from Columbus.  

Moyer eventually restored a sense of dignity to the court. His successor, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, has built on Moyer’s successes.  

That 1986 election cemented a Republican stranglehold on the court.  

For all but a few years since, at least six of the court’s seven members have been Republicans.    

Although party labels don’t appear beneath judicial candidates’ names on the general election ballot, they are chosen in partisan primaries.  

In one of this year’s contests, Justice Mary DeGenaro, a Republican and former appellate judge from eastern Ohio appointed to the court by Gov. John Kasich, faces Judge Melody Stewart, a Democrat and Court of Appeals judge from the district that serves Cuyahoga County.  

The other contest pits Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Donnelly, a Democrat, against Judge Craig Baldwin, a Republican from Newark and a Court of Appeals judge from the central Ohio area.  

The high number of undecided voters in these races generally benefits Republicans, who for the past 20 years have seen large expenditures on their behalf made by business interests – notably insurance and energy companies.  

Some Republican justices, past and present, have reputations for ruling in ways designed specifically to please their contributors. Long ago, the same was true when Democrats enjoyed a measure of success in Supreme Court elections.  

The last Cuyahoga County Democrat elected to the Ohio Supreme Court was the late Francis Sweeney, elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1998. 

That may change Nov. 6.  

All four candidates were rated “highly recommended” by the Ohio State Bar Association. But the bar association’s selection panel gave Stewart and Donnelly slightly higher ratings than their GOP opponents.

Judge4Yourself, the conscientious, nonpartisan, Cleveland area rating group, also rated Stewart and Donnelly the better candidates. (Baldwin, Donnelly’s opponent, declined to participate in the Judge4Yourself rating process.)

Stewart would be the first black woman elected to the Supreme Court, although the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones came close, narrowly losing a 1990 election campaign for a court seat held by a Republican incumbent.  

Donnelly, the son of longtime Probate Court Judge John Donnelly, is running a refreshingly unorthodox campaign. He opposes allowing prosecutors to privately argue for plea bargain in sexual offender cases. And he has argued the death penalty in Ohio is unfairly applied.

Voters tend to make more mistakes in contests for judgeships than with any other offices. That’s especially true in Cuyahoga County, where voters elect more than 50 judges to serve in state, county and municipal court systems.  

Ohioans would be better served by a bipartisan merit selection process. But twice voters have overwhelmingly rejected merit selection ballot issues, largely because of short-sighted opposition from Democratic constituencies.  

The Ohio Supreme Court is in desperate need of some philosophical and political balance.  

Expecting voters to figure that out might be a bridge too far.

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin: blarkin@cleveland.com

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