By David Skolnick
With two forced retirements because of the state’s age restriction on jurists, voters will select two new members to the Ohio Supreme Court in this election.
Judge Pat Fischer of the 1st District Court of Appeals in Hamilton County is facing Judge John P. O’Donnell of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for one seat, currently held by Justice Judith A. Lanzinger.
The other race pits Judge Pat DeWine of the 1st District Court of Appeals against Judge Cynthia Rice of the Warren-based 11th District Court of Appeals. Justice Paul E. Pfeifer currently has that position.
Justices Lanzinger and Pfeifer can’t run for re-election because the state restricts judges who are at least 70 years old from running for another term.
Although judicial candidates don’t run with political party labels in the general election, they do in the primary and are still backed by parties in the general. Judges Fischer and DeWine are Republicans, and Judges O’Donnell and Rice are Democrats.
Also, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, is running unopposed.
Judge Fischer, of Cincinnati, an appellate court judge first elected in 2010, said he has “more civil trial experience than anyone else” running for the open seats, having argued cases in Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and New York as an attorney before he became a judge.
Judge O’Donnell, of Lakewood, a common pleas judge from 2002 to 2005 and then since 2007, said he’s handled more than 200 criminal and civil trials that “gives me a perspective that others on the court don’t have.”
Regarding Judge Fischer, Judge O’Donnell said he’s “never presided over a trial in a criminal court, presided over a trial in a civil case, never had to personally sentence a person. Judge Fischer’s experience is redundant to what’s already on the court.”
In response, Judge Fischer said, “The premise I keep hearing is I have no trial experience. I have [civil] trial experience. [Judge O’Donnell] has no appellate experience – zero. I don’t buy the premise of the whole thing. His experience is in one county. Mine is all over the country. The court needs someone with broad experience, not narrow.”
Judge Fischer said he follows a “strictly conservative judicial philosophy” and does “not legislate from the bench on any decisions.”
If elected, Judge Fischer said he would eliminate waste as he has done on the court of appeals and would push the Supreme Court to mandate that all rule changes include a published cost compared with a benefits analysis so the public can see the impact before changes are made.
Judge O’Donnell said his experience on the busiest civil and felony criminal court in the state allows him to bring a “fresh and creative perspective on the important issues considered by the Supreme Court.”
If elected, he said he would make sure the state’s top court is open to everyone, and he has never shied away from making tough decisions. Judge O’Donnell said the court’s role is to check and balance the other two government branches.
The Ohio State Bar Association highly recommended Judges Fischer and Rice, recommended Judge O’Donnell and “not recommended” Judge DeWine.
Judge DeWine, of Cincinnati, called the OSBA system “a very flawed process” and that “no one in this race has more appellate experience than me.”
Judge Rice, of Brookfield, said she went through a federal background check as an assistant U.S. attorney, and the OSBA review “was about as thorough” a process.
“I don’t think the system is flawed at all,” she said. “It’s very impressive.”
Another issue in this race is Judge DeWine’s father is the state’s attorney general.
Judge DeWine said, if elected, he would recuse himself from cases brought to the Supreme Court by his father, but he’s received ethics advice that he doesn’t have to do so for cases brought by the AG’s office.
Judge Rice disagrees, saying, “I believe there is a conflict. It’s troublesome that someone wouldn’t see that conflict.”
Judge DeWine said, “The breadth and depth of my experience, combined with my strong commitment to public service, underscore my qualifications for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court.”
He said he’s the only judge to serve on the trial and appellate benches. He spent four years as a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge and has been on the 1st District Court of Appeals since March 2013.
Judge Rice points to her experience as a difference maker on the court. She is a former federal prosecutor, Trumbull County assistant prosecutor and appeals court judge since 2003.
“Presently, none of the current justices have an extensive background in criminal law and procedure,” she said.