November 8 Election set to change the Ohio Supreme Court
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, September 2022) Earlier this year, the Ohio Supreme Court invalidated legislative district maps and sent them back to the Ohio Redistricting Commission for revision, rejecting their fourth attempt at a plan for state redistricting as unconstitutional and unfairly favoring Republicans. Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission filed a challenge in federal court to ask a panel of judges to intervene. A panel of three federal judges stepped in to force the state to implement a redistricting plan before the August special elections, which served as an election for state representatives, state senators, and the state central committee. Republicans have an advantage in about 54% of the districts.
In a 2-1 decision, Judge Amul R. Thapar, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge, and Judge Benjamin J. Beaton, Western District of Kentucky, both appointed by former President Donald Trump, voted in favor of the third set of maps even with the Ohio Supreme Court decision that it was unconstitutional. Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice O’Connor, a Republican who joined three Democrats on the Ohio Supreme Court in the majority decision to reject the maps, said that Republicans on the Redistricting Commission engaged in a stunning rebuke of the rule of law by refusing to create legal maps. Ohio taxpayers footed the $20 million bill to hold the extra election and in the face of an effort by Republicans to influence the outcome, voter turnout in August was a dismal 7.9%.
The Supreme Court of the state of Ohio is the highest judicial court in the state. The chief justice and six justices serve six-year terms, with two seats open for election every even-numbered year, except when the position of chief justice is open. Chief Justice O’Connor will not seek re-election due to age limits leaving her seat vacant for the first time since 2011. Republican Sharon Kennedy and Democrat Jennifer Brunner will battle to determine who will be the next Chief Justice.
Ohio Republicans have controlled the majority on the seven-member high court since 1986. Republican Justice Pat DeWine will face Democratic First District Court of Appeals Judge Marilyn Zayas, and Republican Justice Pat Fischer will run against Democrat 10th District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison. Democrats can gain control of the Ohio Supreme Court with victories in both races. The political affiliation will be listed next to the names on the ballot for the first time.
Ohio voters will also elect a new representative to the U.S. Senate during the general election on November 8. Republican conservative commentator and author J. D. Vance is running against Democratic U.S. Representative Tim Ryan. If Ryan wins, Ohio will have two Democratic U.S. Senators for the first time since John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum served together in the early 1990s.
Vance, the bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy, and a venture capitalist with Silicon Valley ties, is viewed by some critics as an outsider with little connection to the Buckeye State. Ryan is a 10-term House member from the Youngstown area.
Ryan and Vance are competing for the Senate seat that has no incumbent Senator due to Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that he would not seek re-election this year.
In the governor’s race, Republican Governor Mike DeWine is seeking re-election for a second term against Democrat Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton. The DeWine campaign is focused on growing business infrastructure, arming teachers through gun legislation, and protecting the right to life. Whaley said she is ready to fight against corruption and protect reproductive freedoms.
Jonathan Petrea, a conservative Republican and Senior Partner at Ascendant Public Policy Group, said that the Democrats need to support the interests of Ohio voters to win more legislative seats if they want to gain control of the House and Senate.
“They should change their policy agenda to be in line with the people of Ohio,” Petrea said. “Lower taxes and school choice. The Democrats do not have to agree with the Republicans, but a variation on policy proposals needs to support voter interest.”
Democrats swept the state house and state-wide elections in 2016, and two years later, Ohioans rejected them and voted in a Republican majority. Gerrymandering did not influence the election results, according to Petrea.
“The process works. Elections have consequences. The current Redistricting Commission is a solution looking for a problem. The last thing we need as Ohioans is the federal court deciding for us. The Redistricting Commission forced our constitution to support an undemocratic process. The resulting maps are stacked to gain power not afforded by Ohioans. Alexis de Tocqueville would roll over in his grave,” he added, referring to the French sociologist and political philosopher, who Wikipedia describes as an advocate for parliamentary government and skeptical of the extremes of democracy.
More than 70% of the seats for judicial office on the ballot for the 2022 midterm elections in Cuyahoga County are running unopposed. Only 7 of the candidates face challengers. In the Eighth District Court of Appeals, Cornelius J. O’Sullivan (R) is running against Michael John Ryan (D). The remaining six contested elections for Judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, General Division, are Tim Hess (R) – Richard A. Bell (D); Gina Marie Crawford (R) – Maureen Clancy (D); Joan Synenberg (R) – Brian Mooney (D); Denise Joan Salerno (R) – Deborah M. Turner (D); Wanda C. Jones (R) – Kevin J. Kelley (D); and Kenneth R. Callahan (R) – Jennifer O’Donnell (D).
Kevin J. Kelley, former Cleveland City Council president, and Cleveland mayoral candidate, is running for Judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Please, General Division. His opponent is Republican Wanda C. Jones, appointed by Gov. DeWine to fill the vacancy on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas bench after the death of Democratic judge Joseph D. Russo.
Fundraising is an issue for judicial candidates, with the individual limits at $650, far below the limits for other government offices. Ohio Supreme Court candidates, on the other hand, can accept a maximum of $3,800 in contributions from individuals in primary and general elections. Organizations may give up to $7,000 to Ohio Supreme Court candidates in primary and general elections. Political parties may contribute up to $189,500 to candidates in primary elections and $347,600 in general elections. Running for office is expensive and demands a constant influx of financial resources to reach voters.
“Voting for judges is critical. Judges make important decisions about our freedom every day,” Kelley said when asked about the lackluster turnout of voters in recent elections. “Decisions made at the Court of Common Pleas affect the daily life of residents. Generally speaking, as an elected official, the best day of your life is the filing deadline when you do not have an opponent. The worst thing for the system of government is not having active competitive elections.”
Kelley acknowledged that while he was free to talk about issues facing the City of Cleveland as a mayoral candidate, as a candidate for a judicial seat, the law restricts him from discussing specific cases pending in court or any issue that may make its way to the court as a judge.
“It is a different world than running for mayor or city council,” said Kelley.
Ross DiBello, a Cleveland attorney who worked at the law office of Cassandra Collier-Williams, a judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas General Division, said information about the judicial candidates is often hard to find. DiBello ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cleveland in 2021.
“We need an independent and publicly funded tracking system for incumbent judges to understand a candidate’s judicial record, just like comparing sports players’ statistics. We should disseminate information for voters to make a decision. Judges grant and terminate probation. They confirm or vacate a death penalty,” he said. “We need to know who they are.”
Parts of this story appeared in The Cleveland Observer.