Don’t skip judge races at the polls
A look at what they do and why they are important
Name-recognition voting in judicial races is not uncommon. Part of the problem is that voters can’t find, or won’t look for, relevant data about candidates.
In a March poll of registered voters by Baldwin Wallace University’s Community Research Institute, only 24 percent of respondents believed they had enough useful information to vote for Ohio Supreme Court candidates this November. Another 44 percent said they had some information but would like to know more.
Due to lack of information, some voters, while choosing candidates for the executive and legislative branches on their ballots, skip judicial races.
In the Baldwin Wallace poll, only 51 percent of respondents said they were very likely to vote for Supreme Court candidates in November, although another 23 percent said they were somewhat likely to do so.
The Ohio Debate Commission, founded in 2018 to organize debates for candidates seeking statewide offices, hopes to help fill the information gap. The commission, partnering with several news organizations, is planning an Oct. 9 forum featuring all four candidates for the Supreme Court. The virtual forum will be recorded and made available for rebroadcast and viewing afterward. Those details are still in discussion.
Two former Supreme Court justices, Yvette McGee Brown and Judith Lanzinger, and retired Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine will sit on an advisory panel for the candidates’ forum.
Historically, there have been a few ways to learn about judicial candidates.
The League of Women Voters has published and posted voters’ guides for decades, and local bar associations have graded judicial candidates. Additional information sources are emerging, which is important because in Ohio, unlike in the federal system, all judges at all levels are elected. Voter participation is vital.
“We don’t have a perfect judicial system, but it is working toward justice,” Lanzinger said. “If the people don’t believe in the system, it fractures our society.”
According to the Ohio Fair Courts Alliance, a 2014 survey found that 63 percent of Ohio voters didn’t vote for judges because they didn’t know enough about the candidates.
“That’s sad because judges in Ohio are the only public officials given authority to take people’s property, their freedom, and sometimes their very lives,” Adrine said.
Voters might see courts as distant entities reserved only for criminals. In fact, elected judges in Ohio at each of four levels — municipal, county, appeals and supreme — make decisions that affect the lives of average citizens. Municipal court judges, for example, can overturn a traffic ticket, settle civil suits involving up to $15,000 in damages and marry people, in addition to hearing misdemeanor criminal cases.
Each county has a common pleas court that includes a general division, which hears felony criminal cases and suits involving more than $15,000; a domestic relations division, which handles divorces, annulments, separations, and child-support issues; and a probate division, which issues marriage licenses and presides over adoption, guardianship, and estate cases. The court also includes a juvenile division.
At the next level, the state has 12 appellate courts, where citizens can appeal rulings by common pleas judges and juries. Three-judge panels from appellate courts hear each case. The total number of judges on each appellate court ranges from four to 12.
Finally, the Ohio Supreme Court, consisting of a chief justice plus six justices, accepts cases that are constitutionally significant or of significant interest to the public. Over the years, the Supreme Court has, for example, declared that Ohio’s system of funding schools through property taxes is unconstitutional, something with which the state legislature is still grappling.
“It’s easy for people to think that courts are not going to affect them, that they’re the purview of lawyers,” said Jill Zimon, executive director of the debate commission. “But it’s an entitled, privileged perspective to say that just because I may never appear before a judge, my voting for them may not matter.”
In addition to voting for judges by name recognition, voters sometimes select judicial candidates according to their political parties. In Ohio, candidates can attach parties to their names in primary elections but not in general elections.
Brown said labor unions also endorse judicial candidates but only those who support their particular causes. She said voters should avoid choosing candidates based on party or the political interests of any one organization.
“You need a judge who doesn’t have to abide by campaign slogans but will make decisions based on the facts of a case, and who is not beholden to any groups,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, judges and candidates can help by participating more in the democratic process. Some have refused to answer any debate question or respond to candidate questionnaires, saying they are ethically prohibited from doing so. But Adrine said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, although judges and candidates should not discuss particular cases that might come before them, they can talk about more general issues.
Thomas Sutton — director of Baldwin Wallace University’s Community Research Institute, which conducted the March voters’ poll — said judicial candidates can, for example, answer questions about the decriminalization of marijuana, sentencing guidelines, and prisoner treatment.
Lanzinger said an increasing number of judges are joining speakers’ bureaus and appearing in schools to educate the public about their jobs.
Support for the Civics Essential series by Issue Media Group came from the Ohio State Bar Association Foundation. Your Voice Ohio is supported by the Democracy Fund, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Facebook.
Court basics to help you vote
Ohio has six levels of courts
Common pleas courts — At the county level, with several divisions and often several judges.
Courts of claims
The Ohio Supreme Court offers this diagram and descriptions to show the connection and purposes of each court.
Judges serve for six years, so generally a third of those in your area are up for election every two years.
What area does my appeals court cover?
There are 12 appeals court districts, often encompassing several counties. This map page provides information about each court and the names of current judges.
How do I do research?
These organizations provide information on the candidates:
Judge4Yourself, aggregates recommendations from five bar associations in Ohio.
Judicial Votes Count, maintained by the University of Akron and supported by the Ohio State Bar Association.
Ohio Fair Courts Alliance, founded by Common Cause Ohio, the Dayton NAACP, Greater Cleveland Congregations, Ohio Environmental Council, and Ohio Voice.
2020 general election
An * denotes incumbents.
Supreme Court Justice (term begins 1/1/21)
John P. O’Donnell
Supreme Court Justice (term begins 1/2/21)
7th District Court of Appeals (term begins 2/9/21)
Carol Ann Robb*
7th District Court of Appeals (term begins 2/10/21)
Cheryl L. Waite*
Common Pleas Court Judge (term begins 1/2/21)
Maureen A. Sweeney*
Common Pleas Court Judge (term begins 2/9/21)
R. Scott Krichbaum*
Common Pleas Court Judge (term begins 7/1/21)
John M. Durkin*
Domestic Relations Court Judge
Beth A. Smith*
Probate Court Judge
David Lee Engler
Robert N. Rusu Jr.*
County Court Judge
11th District Court of Appeals (term begins 2/9/21)
Timothy P. Cannon*
11th District Court of Appeals (term begins 2/10/21)
Cynthia Westcott Rice*
Sarah Thomas Kovoor
Common Pleas Court Judge
Peter J. Kontos*
Probate Court Judge
James A. Fredericka*