Ohio Supreme Court election may produce seismic shift

Three of the seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court are up for election this year, and the outcome will determine far more than the nameplates on the state’s court of last resort.

The end-of-year retirement of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and potential changes in two other seats could shift the balance of the court as it wrestles with topics of vital interest statewide, such as abortion and legislative redistricting.

Challenges to the state’s abortion restrictions in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s overturn are expected to continue; and O’Connor, a Republican, repeatedly joined the court’s three Democrats in rejecting Republican-drawn state legislative and congressional maps as unfairly favoring Republicans.

Justices serve six-year terms. Usually two seats are up for election every two years, but this time the chief justice’s seat is open also. As it happens, all three seats currently available are now held by Republicans. One Republican-held seat and the three Democratic-held seats are not open this year.

For the first time, in this election the candidates’ party affiliation will appear next to their names on the ballot.

O’Connor cannot run again due to the state’s age limit for the seat. Two current justices, Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Sharon Kennedy, are seeking to succeed her as chief justice. When a current justice wins the chief justiceship, the governor can appoint a replacement to fill the winner’s former seat.

The other two seats in contention are held by Justice Pat DeWine and Justice Pat Fischer. Both are seeking a second term, opposed by Democratic judges Marilyn Zayas and Terri Jamison, respectively.

The bar association’s Judicial Election Campaign Advertising Monitoring Committee announced in September that Brunner, Jamison and Zayas had signed its “clean campaign agreement,” taking personal responsibility for ads released by their campaigns or authorized committees. DeWine, Fischer and Kennedy declined to sign, the bar association said.

The Dayton Daily News reached out to each candidate’s campaign for comment. Not all responded, but all candidates did answer questions from the Ohio State Bar Association. The following profiles are based on both responses.

Chief Justiceship

Brunner, elected to the court in 2020, said she has always considered her work to be public service.

“I have chosen to run for chief justice to continue the work begun by those who have come before me — Chief Justice (Thomas) Moyer and Chief Justice O’Connor,” she said.

Brunner outlined priorities for the court, including establishment of a commission on fairness and equality in the legal system; creating a sentencing database for felony convictions; expanding special court dockets to deal with the root causes of crimes, preparing for legal issues arising from environmental problems; and improving court technology and continued focus on the opioid epidemic.

She said she adheres strictly to the separation of powers between the three branches of government, but also that everyone — including legislators — is subject to the law.

“With the receding of the pandemic, I’ve been able to travel throughout Ohio, especially to Ohio’s rural areas,” Brunner said. “They are weary of extremist positions and are looking for qualified, experienced, dedicated public servants who are focused on public service.”

Kennedy, in her second term on the court, said she has previously worked as a police officer, lawyer and trial court judge.

She has worked with many partners in the justice system to solve specific problems, and saw from that that becoming a supreme court justice would let her have a bigger impact, she said.

“My judicial philosophy is described as judicial restraint,” Kennedy said. “My determination of what the law says is guided by the words of the constitutional provision, statute, or contract.”

She would seek to improve the court system by urging judges to apply for technology grants, allowing quicker virtual hearings; encourage communities to use the statewide Stepping-Up program for the mentally ill; and promote use of drug treatment courts for nonviolent substance abuse.

“I have enjoyed traveling Ohio and speaking with voters in all 88 counties,” Kennedy said. “It was a great opportunity to hear about their primary concerns: the economy, the rise in crime and the lack of transparency in government.”

Kennedy said she will encourage young people to work in the court system, “continue serving on panels that discuss racial inequities in the justice system and work with community leaders to help them connect to the resources they need,” and work to implement diversity education and inclusion programs in the courts.

In her bar association answers, Kennedy signaled that as chief justice she would not consider punitive action for legislators’ refusal to draw district maps in compliance with court orders. Courts can declare laws unconstitutional and review the actions of other branches of government, but cannot tell lawmakers to enact specific legislation, she said.

“And the courts, while having the contempt power, do not have the enforcement powers bestowed upon the executive branch,” Kennedy said.

DeWine v. Zayas

The son of Republican incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine, elected the court in 2016, is running against First District Court of Appeals Judge Marilyn Zayas.

“I aspire to serve another term on the Ohio Supreme Court because it’s where my skills and talents allow me to make the biggest positive difference in the lives of Ohioans,” Pat DeWine said.

Interpreting the law should be done by focusing on the legislative language, he said.

“I share the view that judges are not given a broad commission to solve society’s problems as they see them, but rather to decide cases before them according to the rule of law,” DeWine said. “At its best, judicial decision-making does not advance any particular policy objective; but fairly applies the law as it is written.”

DeWine said he worked to establish the ICourts task force to improve efficiency, teaches law and works extensively with young lawyers and students.

The legal system should strive to welcome and support everyone equally, he said.

Zayas, originally from New York City, grew up in a “tough neighborhood devastated by crime and drugs,” becoming interested in law as a teenager while helping her mother deal with the court system. That background gives her a unique perspective on the court, she said.

Zayas came to Ohio to work for Proctor & Gamble, leaving that job to go to law school.

“As the first person of color elected to my court and the first Latina elected to any Ohio appellate court, my goal is to build a judicial reputation that inspires others from nontraditional backgrounds to pursue law careers,” she said.

Zayas said she created an “Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders” program to help promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the court system.

Zayas agreed with other candidates that the independence of the judiciary is essential. She joined Brunner and Jamison in saying she wants to continue O’Connor’s efforts on a sentencing database and bail reform.

“Additionally, I will seek ways to support and enlarge the use of specialized dockets, such as the mental health, human trafficking second chance, veterans, drug court, and commercial dockets,” Zayas said.

Fischer v. Jamison

Jamison, on the Ohio Tenth District Court of Appeals since 2021, worked as a coal miner in West Virginia before beginning her legal career. She said she’s running to preserve and strengthen the supreme court’s independence. Jamison specifically mentioned the court’s input on redistricting as a “check and balance” on the legislative and executive branches.

Like Brunner, Jamison said she wanted to continue O’Connor’s work on technology, access to justice, creating a criminal sentencing database and modernizing the handbook of criminal procedure.

Jamison said she has always worked on equal access to justice, diversity and inclusion, and sought alternatives to detention for juveniles.

The courts must remain above politics, she said.

“Obviously, cases with political implications will come before the courts. When they do the judges who hear them should issue rulings based solely on the law,” Jamison said.

Fischer said he wanted to become a lawyer since the eighth grade, and described his judicial philosophy as “common sense textualism.”

Elected to the supreme court in 2016, he said he continues learning, gives public presentations, and joins in the bar association’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

“The courts must remain a separate branch of government, leaving legislating to the legislature and execution to the executive,” Fischer said.

Fischer said he believes judges and the bar should work together to improve the justice system.

About the Author