Three ‘well qualified’ lawyers eyeing county court judgeship

After interviewing eight candidates who applied to be a Mahoning County Court judge, the county Republican Party recommended Gov. Mike De-Wine choose from three.

As is tradition, the governor selects one of the three.

The three recommended candidates are:

J.P. Morgan, who finished fourth in a six-person race Nov. 6, 2018, for a different county court judicial seat won by Molly Johnson.

A. Ross Douglass, who finished last in that same judicial race.

Ronald Knickerbocker, who unsuccessfully ran in 2000 for a county court seat.

Yes, they’ve all run before, including two last year, and were rejected by voters.

That doesn’t mean they won’t be excellent judges.

But it’s quite likely that Democrats are eyeing this seat when it comes up for election next year. Mahoning Democrats have a pretty solid track record in the past few years of defeating incumbent Republican judges appointed by the governor.

I met last fall with Douglass and Morgan for their endorsement interviews with the newspaper and came away impressed with both of them. The newspaper endorsed Morgan in that race.

Knickerbocker has been a well-respected attorney in the area for years.

“We had a group of well-qualified attorneys,” said Mahoning Republican Chairman Mark Munroe, a member of the seven-person screening committee that made the recommendations.

“More than three of them were standouts,” he said. “In the end, we had to make some very hard choices. Regardless of whom the governor selects, Mahoning County will be served by a quality judge.”

Munroe said the “most difficult” decision made by the committee was to not recommend Kathleen Bartlett, who was appointed in March 2018 by then-Gov. John Kasich to an empty seat on the 7th District Court of Appeals.

She lost a close race to Judge David D’Apolito, a Democrat. She won seven of the eight counties in the district, but lost the race by 2.1 percent because she was defeated in Mahoning County by 26.9 percentage points.

This Mahoning County Court judicial seat becomes vacant a week from today when D’Apolito leaves the post to go to the court of appeals.

But don’t expect DeWine to make an appointment right away. It’s going to take him a little while as he only took over as governor a few weeks ago and the Mahoning Republican recommendations were made last week.

An interesting part of the appointment process was Mark Hanni, one of the eight to seek the party’s recommendation, asked the committee to vote by secret ballot because of what he called “a longtime strained relationship” with Munroe.

Hanni wrote in a letter to the committee that Munroe “is lobbying against me for the appointment,” and that “pressure will be put on you” to not support him.

Hanni said he took about 20 letters of recommendation to the committee including from Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson, one of the most influential Republicans in the state who beat Munroe for state central committeeman; Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judges R. Scott Krichbaum, Maureen Sweeney and John Durkin; Mahoning County Court Judge Scott Hunter; and state Sen. Michael Rulli.

Munroe said he doesn’t dislike Hanni, but still has issues over his failed attempt about 15 years ago to take over the Republican Party from then-Chairman Clarence Smith. Munroe was the party’s first vice chairman at the time.

“Mark dropped hints that I was an old-style chairman and would bully the committee,” Munroe said. “That’s not my style. Mark didn’t have the support of the committee he thought he should have.”

Munroe described the secret-ballot request as “an odd step,” and that he “worked hard to conduct a fair and open process.”

Hanni also sought the appointment earlier this year to an open seat on Youngstown Municipal Court. He unsuccessfully ran as an independent for judge of that court in 2017.

After failing to get a Mahoning Republican screening committee’s recommendation, Hanni worked to bypass the committee and get Kasich to appoint him. It didn’t work.

Is he trying to do that again?

Hanni acknowledged he sent his letters of support to De-Wine’s office.

But added: “I’m not sure [if I’ll still seek the appointment]. I may just step aside. I don’t know. I have had contact. I may step aside. I don’t want to put [DeWine] in a compromising position.”

Munroe said: “The governor can choose whoever he wants, but there’s a long tradition in how these vacancies are filled. I have no reason to believe Mike DeWine will do anything differently.”

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