Capital News: Do judge ratings matter to average voters?

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published:

Columbus -- The Ohio State Bar Association's Commission on Judicial Candidates released its ratings of Ohio Supreme Court candidates last week.

Based on the previous round of bar association recommendations, I'm betting the average Ohio voter doesn't know about the ratings and/or doesn't care.

Flashback two years ago, when two incumbent Ohio Supreme Court justices faced two newcomers.

Then-Justices Robert Cupp, a Republican, and Yvette McGee Brown, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Ted Strickland, were up against Democrat Bill O'Neill and Republican Sharon Kennedy, respectively.

Cupp and McGee Brown both received "highly recommended" ratings from the state bar association.

O'Neill, a former appeals court judge who ran for the high court a couple of times before, received a "recommended" rating from the state group.

And Kennedy received a "not recommended."

But it was O'Neill and Kennedy who won those races, the former for a full term and the latter for a partial term that will be decided by voters again in November.

The one thing the two winners had in common was their Irish-sounding last names. (Republican Terrence O'Donnell won that year, too.)

Flash forward to the present campaign. Incumbent Justice Judith French, a Republican appointed by Gov. John Kasich, faces Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O'Donnell, a Democrat. Last week, the state bar association gave both "highly recommended" ratings.

Kennedy opted not to participate in the rating process this time. Her challenger, state Rep. Tom Letson (D-Warren) received a "not recommended" rating.

According to the lawyers group, "Candidates who receive favorable evaluations from less than 60 percent of the commission members are rated 'Not Recommended.' In the view of the commission, this candidate's qualifications are not suited to perform the duties and responsibilities of chief justice or justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio."

Letson took the news in stride. He told The Vindicator's David Skolnick, "They're entitled to their opinions. I'd certainly like everyone to like me, but everyone views people through their own lenses."

He added, "This puts me in the same boat as Sharon Kennedy the first time. It tells you something. I am happy to sit down with my colleagues at the bar and discuss my qualifications."

As I've stated in this space before, part of the problem is the nature of judicial elections, which are nonpartisan affairs during the general election.

Sitting justices and challengers often shy away from firm positions on issues that may come before the bench, so it can be difficult for voters decide on candidates.

Add to that the fact that even-year elections are focused on bigger ticket races -- this year, the gubernatorial contest and four other statewide offices that will be decided -- not to mention that voters are often more focused on national politics rather than Statehouse issues.

Despite ample information published and posted online about the candidates, many voters still are left shaking their heads at the polls and guessing on candidates for Supreme Court and other down-ticket races.

Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor acknowledged the challenge in a series of recommendations she made earlier this year related to judicial elections.

Among other ideas, she wants to move judicial races to the top of the ballot and candidates run in odd-year elections.

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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