By Peter H. Milliken
Perhaps the most hotly contested Mahoning County Democratic Primary race on May 6 will be the one for the open probate judge seat vacated by Mark Belinky, who resigned in March under a cloud of law-enforcement investigation.
The candidates are Atty. Susan Maruca, who has the Democratic Party endorsement, and Atty. Christopher Sammarone.
In contrast, the Mahoning County Bar Association rates Sammarone as recommended and Maruca as not recommended.
Much of the dispute in the Maruca-Sammarone contest centers on which candidate is more qualified and experienced in handling probate matters.
“This position requires somebody that the public can trust, that has integrity, and has the necessary qualifications and experience to oversee that court and its operations, and I believe I possess all of those attributes,” Sammarone told The Vindicator’s editorial board.
“Our next probate judge has to have experience in that court,” Sammarone said. “She’s spent more time campaigning for this than practicing in Mahoning County Probate Court,” Sammarone said of his opponent.
“To say that I don’t have experience is unfair,” Maruca said, adding that she has worked for the Warren probate law firm of Letson & Swader LPC since September 2010.
On the Mahoning County Probate Court’s public docket, Sammarone is listed as a lawyer on 62 cases since 1999, primarily in estate and guardianship cases.
On that docket, Maruca is listed on just one case on the court’s public docket as a next of kin in a 2004 estate case.
On the nonpublic docket, however, Maruca was a lawyer in 10 adoption proceedings between 1999 and 2004, but none since then.
Sammarone is not listed as a lawyer in any adoption proceedings there.
Maruca’s Trumbull County Probate Court public docket record shows her as a lawyer in a deposit of a will for safekeeping and a guardianship case, both in 2001, and in a 2012 estate case.
She is listed in 14 cases on the nonpublic adoption docket since 2000, according to Trumbull County Probate Judge Thomas Swift.
In other matters there, Maruca was a plaintiff in a 2011 land-sale proceeding and co-administrator in a 2010 estate case.
Sammarone deposited two wills in Trumbull County Probate Court in 2006 and is listed on one estate case in 2002 and two estate cases in 2007. He also handled a guardianship case in 2004 and an adoption in 2009.
There is no record of Maruca or Sammarone on any Columbiana County Probate Court public docket case going back to 1996, but Sammarone handled one adoption case there in 2006.
Maruca calls attention to her handling of the adoption cases and says she has done legal research and writing for many cases on which she is not listed on the court docket as the lawyer of record. “I’m very good at research and writing,” she said.
Maruca said she has handled about 25 adoption cases during her legal career, beginning with international adoptions 20 years ago.
“I want that court to get on stable ground, and I think that I have the experience, the passion and the commitment to do it,” Maruca said of the probate court.
Maruca noted that both Judge Timothy Maloney and Belinky left the probate court before the end of their terms.
Belinky’s resignation followed Feb. 7 raids by state and federal law-enforcement agencies and county sheriff’s deputies at the probate court and at his Boardman residence.
The agents seized financial records and campaign materials and records and said charges could include engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, bribery, money laundering, theft and theft in office, No charges have been filed.
After Belinky’s March 14 resignation, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed Visiting Judge R.R. Denny Clunk of Alliance as interim probate judge until June 17, or until Gov. John Kasich appoints a new judge.
The Mahoning County Republican Party has recommended Sammarone and Attys. Mary Ann Fabrizi and Robert N. Rusu Jr. to Kasich to complete Belinky’s term, which expires Feb. 8, 2015.
Fabrizi and Rusu plan to run as independent candidates for the judgeship in November.
Maruca was the only one of the four applicants for the county GOP’s recommendation that the party did not recommend to the governor.