Civics Essential: What do judges do and why is it important?

In October 2011, about a month before the general election, The Plain Dealer urged its readers not to re-elect Judge Angela Stokes to Cleveland Municipal Court.

By that time, Stokes’ fitness for the bench was in question. First elected in 1995 and re-elected twice since then, she had been accused of abusing court staff, defendants, and lawyers, and moving too slowly through her docket.

Stokes did notch some accomplishments. She started Project HOPE, which stood for Holistic Opportunities and Preventative Education, a program meant to assist prostitutes appearing in court. However, in its candidate endorsement editorial, The Plain Dealer suggested that Stokes was elected largely because of her last name – she was the daughter of the late U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes and niece of Carl Stokes, who was Cleveland’s first Black mayor in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Voters must break a longstanding Cuyahoga County tradition of supporting familiar names and take a look at her performance,” the editorial said. “That should lead to the conclusion this editorial board and … four bar associations … reached independently: Stokes doesn’t belong on the bench.”

Nevertheless, Clevelanders re-elected Stokes with 56% of the vote, impressive considering that she faced two opponents. Two years later, a complaint containing more than 200 allegations against her was filed with the Ohio Supreme Court, and after a two-year legal fight, Stokes in 2015 agreed to resign and never seek a judicial seat again.

As The Plain Dealer editorial mentioned, 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% of respondents believed they had enough useful information to vote for Ohio Supreme Court candidates this November. Another 44% 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% of respondents said they were very likely to vote for Supreme Court candidates in November, although another 23% 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, has planned a live forum on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, which will be taped and available for broadcast on Tuesday, Oct. 13. It will feature all four candidates for the Supreme Court and last about an hour.
Yvette McGee Brown
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 says. “If the people don’t believe in the system, it fractures our society.”

Bringing voters and judges closer

According to the Ohio Fair Courts Alliance, a 2014 survey found that 63% 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 says.

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,” says 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 says 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 says.

Ronald AdrineMeanwhile, 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 says 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 — says judicial candidates can, for example, answer questions about the decriminalization of marijuana, sentencing guidelines, and prisoner treatment.

Lanzinger says an increasing number of judges are joining speakers’ bureaus and appearing in schools to educate the public about their jobs.

Fountains of data

The website Judge4Yourself is one way voters can learn about judicial candidates. It aggregates candidate recommendations from five bar associations and rates them on their integrity, temperament, demeanor, diligence, and competence.

Also, Judicial Votes Count by the University of Akron provides candidate data by county, plus information about the court system. The website was established in 2015 with the backing of Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

A cosponsor of Judicial Votes Count is the Ohio State Bar Association, which in August, through its Commission on Judicial Candidates, released candidate ratings for the 2020 Supreme Court race. The commission grades candidates on a 30-point scale based on their legal knowledge and ability, professional competence, judicial temperament, integrity and diligence, personal responsibility, and community service.

Ohio Fair Courts Alliance — whose founding members include Common Cause Ohio, the Dayton NAACP, Greater Cleveland Congregations, Ohio Environmental Council, and Ohio Voice — is working to increase voter knowledge by training those with expertise in the courts to speak in public gatherings. The group also aims to shine a brighter light on those contributing money to judicial campaigns.

Building confidence in the judicial system, especially for minorities, was the subject of a July speech by O’Connor, who said the current societal unrest is due to historically unequal and unfair treatment of minorities in courts. She said that according to a 2015 survey, just 32% of Blacks believe justice is applied equally.

O’Connor said the courts must reform the bail system, which lets criminal defendants out of jail until their cases are heard — if they pay cash. The system is unfair to low-income minorities who can’t afford bail. She said the constitution requires release pending resolution of a case unless there is a proven flight risk or danger to the community.

Also, O’Connor said data must be collected regarding sentencing to make sure certain groups of people aren’t receiving stiffer sentences based on race. She also called for cameras in every courtroom and jury education and training to prevent bias.

“Judges must demonstrate to those who enter their courtrooms that they can expect equal treatment under the law, with respect, and with the assurance that nothing but the facts of the case and the law are taken into consideration when a decision is rendered,” O’Connor said.

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Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Bob Sandrick is an award-winning veteran reporter who has worked as a staff writer for cleveland.com and Sun News. He broke the story about Cleveland Division of Water billing errors in one suburb. It was later discovered the problem was widespread, leading to water division reforms. Today Sandrick is a freelance multimedia journalist.

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