The 7th District includes Mahoning and Columbiana counties.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- It's an issue before the Ohio House of Representatives and among candidates for 7th District Court of Appeals: How much legal experience do judges need?
State law currently requires judges of municipal, county, common pleas, appeals and the Supreme Court to have practiced law for at least six years. House Bill 266 proposes changing requirements to 10 years' experience for common pleas court, 12 years for appellate court and 15 years for Supreme Court. The same bill also would lengthen judges' terms, depending on the office they hold, in future elections. It's not clear when legislators will vote on the bill.
Atty. Timothy E. Franken compares electing judges with choosing surgeons. "Do you want a doctor with the minimum qualifications to operate on you?" says Franken, 57, of Canfield, who is chief assistant of the criminal division in the Mahoning County Prosecutor's Office. Franken also had a private practice for 18 years and was legal counsel of Western Reserve Transit Authority.
Quality of experience
"You've got to look at the quality of your experience," says Franken's challenger, Atty. Christopher Sammarone, 33, also of Canfield. In Sammarone's case, that includes working as a clerk for three months for Judge Gene Donofrio of 7th District Court of Appeals in 1997; joining the law firm of Roth, Blair, Roberts, Strasfeld & amp; Lodge when he became an attorney in 1999; and serving as general counsel/vice president of marketing for Truck World Inc. of Hubbard from 2001 to 2004. Sammarone maintains a private general law practice in Youngstown.
Appellate judges review errors by lower court judges as reported by defense attorneys and decide whether to uphold The 7th District, which covers Mahoning, Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe and Noble counties.
The winner will face incumbent Judge Mary DeGenaro of Poland, a Republican, in the general election.
In his 27 years of practicing law, Franken said he has tried 12 capital murder cases; more than 100 felony cases; 40 appellate cases; and numerous civil, domestic, probate and juvenile cases.
Appeals judges don't hear witness testimony; they read briefs that attorneys submit. Courtroom experience helps the judges to understand what was occurring in the courtroom when an issue arose. "That's why I can get more out of [reading] a piece of paper," Franken said.
Franken ran for 7th District Court of Appeals in 1996 against Judge Donofrio.
He said he's running this time because he believes Judge DeGenaro is "politically vulnerable" and because he disagrees with some of her legal opinions.
Sammarone and DeGenaro lack trial experience, Franken said.
"I want to be a leader in this community," Sammarone said. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, and state Sen. John Boccieri of New Middletown, D-61st, weren't experienced legislators when they were elected, but they had energy, enthusiasm and drive, he noted.
Sammarone said he always worked under good lawyers and judges. At Roth, Blair, Roberts, Strasfeld & amp; Lodge, the bulk of his work involved civil litigation. He was involved in all aspects of business at Truck World, which was a small oil company competing with big enterprises, he said. As for briefs he's written for appeals court, Sammarone expressed confidence that sitting judges would find the quality of his work to be good and his arguments cogent.
Only one-third of the appeals court's recent cases have been criminal in nature, Sammarone observed.