COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Abortion, redistricting and a slew of other hot-button issues are on Ohioans’ ballots this fall, albeit indirectly.
Ohio is gearing up to administer one of the nation’s most competitive state supreme court races on Nov. 8, with six candidates vying for a seat on the seven-member bench that has the ultimate say over the constitutionality of state laws.
Republicans hold a 4-3 majority. With two GOP justices up for re-election and the retirement of Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor — often viewed as a swing vote — voters will determine whether to retain that advantage or flip it on its head.
To secure a Democratic majority, voters must oust either Republican Justices R. Patrick DeWine or Patrick Fischer, regardless of the outcome of the chief justice race, according to a report from Louis Jacobson of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
A Democratic majority could be short-lived, however, if the party’s only winner is Brunner. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine would, in that case, appoint a replacement to fill Brunner’s vacant associate justice seat, Jacobson said.
“In reality, winning two — or even one — GOP-held seats this year will be an uphill battle for Democrats,” Jacobson said. “The party has floundered in most other recent statewide races in Ohio, a state that has become redder over the past few years.”
A lawmaker-approved change to this year’s ballots – adding party affiliation next to a candidate’s name – could give Republican candidates a leg up over their Democratic challengers, Jacobson said.
Chief Justice: Kennedy v. Brunner
The race for Ohio’s next chief justice is a showdown between two sitting associate justices: Republican Sharon Kennedy, 60, and Democrat Jennifer Brunner, 65.
The loser will return to their associate justice role, and Gov. Mike DeWine will appoint someone to replace the eventual chief justice winner’s vacant associate justice seat, according to former Justice Paul Pfeifer, who served on the court from 1993 to 2017.
Endorsed by the Ohio Republican Party, Kennedy was first elected to the state’s highest court in 2012 after a decade-long tenure as a judge for the domestic relations division of the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.
Kennedy entered law enforcement as a police officer in Hamilton, later representing police during disciplinary hearings for the city’s local Fraternal Order of Police union, her website states. In the mid-90s, she worked as special counsel to former Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery.
“My judicial philosophy is described as judicial restraint,” Kennedy told the Ohio Bar Association in a candidate questionnaire. “When resolving a legal question I answer only the question that is necessary to resolve the controversy. My determination of what the law says is guided by the words of the constitutional provision, statute, or contract.”
A newer face to the court, Ohio Democratic Party endorsee Brunner joined the bench as an associate justice in 2020, according to her campaign website. She worked as a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge for five years before advancing to a six-year judgeship on the 10th District Court of Appeals.
Ohio elected Brunner to be the first female Secretary of State in 2006, and two years later, she became the first Ohioan to win the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her work administering the 2008 presidential election, according to her campaign website.
“The strength and integrity of the judiciary, including the power to prosecute corruption, is a predictor of the longevity of a democracy,” Brunner told the Ohio Bar Association. “The judiciary must adhere to its core principals [sic] and functions, using restraint when called for and shouldering the burden of unpopularity when action is called for.”
Associate Justice: Fischer v. Jamison
Vying for re-election to the bench is incumbent Republican Justice Patrick Fischer, 64, who is being challenged by Democratic Judge Terri Jamison, 62, of the 10th District Court of Appeals.
Ohioans elected Fischer to serve on the state’s top court in 2016 after his six-year tenure on the First District Court of Appeals, according to Fischer’s profile on JudicialVotesCount. Endorsed by the Ohio Republican Party, he also sat as a visiting judge in five additional federal appeals courts in Ohio.
In the late 80s, Fischer worked at a private law firm in Cincinnati, where he was later named partner.
“I unabashedly believe in the goodness of the bench and bar working together to make the justice system better in every way, and have worked with that attitude my entire legal career and will continue to do so,” Fischer told JudicialVotesCount in a candidate questionnaire.
After nearly a decade on the domestic relations/juvenile branch of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, Jamison was appointed to the 10th District Court of Appeals in 2021, according to the Ohio Bar Association.
The Ohio Democratic Party’s endorsee, Jamison owned a private law practice from 2005 to 2012 and before that served as both an attorney for the state’s Unemployment Compensation Review Commission and as a public defender in Franklin County.
“I believe that Chief Justice Roberts said it best, ‘Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules. They apply them,’” Jamison told the Ohio Bar Association. “When there is no rule that fits the facts, I believe a judge has the authority to interpret the law and render a decision that will answer questions that are of great interest to the public.”
Associate Justice: DeWine v. Zayas
Incumbent Republican Justice R. Patrick DeWine, 54, is campaigning to retain his supreme court seat against his Democratic opponent, Judge Marilyn Zayas of the First District Court of Appeals.
The son of Gov. Mike DeWine, Justice DeWine joined the Ohio Supreme Court in 2017 after a four-year term as a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge, according to his campaign website. He later advanced to the 1st District Court of Appeals.
DeWine, who received the Ohio Republican Party’s stamp of approval, served as a Cincinnati City Councilor and touted his experience at all three levels of Ohio’s courts – “something that very few judges can say,” he said in a JudicialVotesCount candidate questionnaire.
“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 told the Ohio Bar Association. “At its best, judicial decision-making does not advance any particular policy objective, but fairly applies the law as it is written.”
Zayas became the first Latina on any of Ohio’s federal appellate courts when she was elected to the First District Court of Appeals in 2016, according to the Ohio Bar Association.
From 2000 to 2016, Zayas owned and operated her own private law firm, where she focused on foreign investor visas, immigration, and asylum. She kicked off her legal career at a Denver-based firm before becoming a public defender in Hamilton County.
“My priority is to ensure that the law is applied fairly and consistently and with integrity, independence and common sense,” Zayas told the Ohio Bar Association. “I strive to write each decision so that both sides of the case can understand why the outcome is what it is and to reflect that both sides were considered and understood.”