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Election preview: Judges O'Donnell, Fischer vie for seat on Ohio Supreme Court

by Marc kovac Capital Bureau Chief Published: October 19, 2016 12:00 AM
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Columbus -- Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John P. O'Donnell and First District Court of Appeals Judge Pat Fischer both say their experiences would be a benefit to the state's high court.

O'Donnell says his legal career gives him the sort of background not currently represented on the Ohio Supreme Court.

"I think the Ohio Supreme Court can benefit from my broad-based and in-depth trial court experience," he said. "Right now on that court, there are a couple of justices who certainly have trial court experience, and, without demeaning them in any way, it's in the distant past. I, on the other hand, have over the past 14 or so years, up until literally this week when I had a jury come in on Monday, have tried over 200 jury trials in both criminal and civil cases."

Fischer said his nearly three decades of legal practice gives him the edge.

"I've had to see it from all over, including anything from rules changes to appeals to unusual writs and even death penalty cases," he said. "I bring the complete package, and my ability to handle those four I's -- independence, impartiality, intelligence and integrity -- I bring all four to the table, and I think the people of Ohio I hope would benefit from my experiences and abilities."

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O'Donnell faces Fischer in one of two competitive races for the Ohio Supreme Court . The other features appeals court judges Cynthia Rice and Pat DeWine.

Incumbent Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor is unopposed.

Legal Background

O'Donnell has served on the Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court bench for more than a decade, elected to an initial term in 2002, then returning to the court in 2006 and '12. His current term ends in 2019. He holds a law degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and worked as a civil trial attorney before being elected to the bench.

O'Donnell ran for the Ohio Supreme Court two years ago, losing to Justice Judith French.

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Fischer, meanwhile, was elected to the First District Court of Appeals in 2010 and reelected two years later. His current term also ends in 2019. He holds a law degree from the Harvard Law School.

O'Donnell said he has decided "many, many, many" criminal sentences and motions in civil cases and has a "deep familiarity with the rules of procedure and evidence."

"I think [my] perspective will be valuable in the deliberation room," he said. "It's a perspective that my opponent does not share."

But Fischer called himself a complete judge, with experience trying cases and handling legal proceedings as an attorney, in addition to his time on the bench. He said he's traveled across the country for cases before circuit courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Add to that experience as head of the state bar association.

"I think I do bring something different -- very different," he said. "I bring a unique perspective."

He added, "I have far more experience."

Party Labels

Though judicial candidates' party labels are not included on the general election ballot, O'Donnell ran in the primary as a Democrat, while Fischer ran as a Republican.

O'Donnell said he doesn't have an opinion on whether party labels should be included in all judicial elections, though he can understand the arguments for and against such a move.

"I value the independence of the judiciary, and I think it is important to make it clear that the judiciary is and remains independent," he said. "That would militate in favor of not having partisan affiliation on the ballot. But by the same token, I recognize that, particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court, where more attention is paid, that the public seems to have the view that those appointed by Republicans will vote on the Republican, if you will, side of an issue in a heated political type of case, and people seem to think that those appointed by Democrats will do the same on their side. In other words, the battle to reassure the public that the courts remain independent might be lost already. And if that's the case, then there's probably no reason not to have partisan affiliation on the ballot."

Fischer leaned more toward leaving party labels off the ballot.

"The nonpartisan election permits people to kind of cross over and pick judges based upon their abilities and not based upon a partisan label," he said, adding that he's been endorsed by groups on both sides of the political aisle.

Both candidates said their political affiliations don't sway the way they decide cases.

"Don't expect me to be voting as a Democrat with a capital D on particular issues in particular cases," O'Donnell said. "I need to be, and I believe I am, open minded and that I would go where the facts and the law lead, even if they lead somewhere where my Democratic supports might not want to go."

Fischer said judges must consider the constitution, law and contracts at their word and apply the facts in making decision.

"You should be able to get to two or three or four different judges and get basically the same results, and that's the goal," he said.

Judicial Philosophy

That's not to say that judges approach the bench with the same philosophy.

Fischer said the court shouldn't be legislating from the bench. Rather, judges look at contracts and statutes and apply the facts presented to them whether they agree with them or not.

"Every two to three months, I enforce a law that I think the wisdom of the legislature wasn't that wise," he said. "I'll enforce it."

But he also, in the resulting opinions, points out the deficiencies -- "There are laws that I think are stupid," he said. " My job is to notify the legislature [and the public] there is a problem here."

O'Donnell said the court's role is to check and balance the other two branches of government.

"It is the court's role, when the political branches overstep their bounds, to tell them that they've exceeded the constitutions and where a particular law is involved to invalidate that legislation," he said. "If we didn't have what the other side calls judicial activism, we would still have racially segregated schools and public accommodations. We would not have child labor laws, and 10-year-olds could be working 70 hours a week in a slaughterhouse. If we did not have so-called judicial activism, people would not be able to buy birth control, whether they were married or single."

Also: Groups wouldn't have free speech rights to spend big money during elections.

"It cuts both ways," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell's campaign website is online at www.judgeodonnellforjustice.com. Fischer's is at www.fischerforohio.com. And the state's judicial elections website, with additional information about all candidates for the bench, is at blogs.uakron.edu/judicialvotescount.

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

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