Under the Ohio Constitution, all judges in the state are elected, each serving six-year terms. The system depends on voters knowing their judicial candidates and, unfortunately, they oftentimes don’t.
Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown said the legal community has discussed amending the constitution so that judges, or at least Supreme Court justices, are appointed, perhaps by the governor. However, such suggestions have been beaten back so far.
“Once you give people the right to vote for something, it’s hard to take it away,” Brown said. “People see a nefarious intention in that.”
Retired Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine acknowledged that the existing system was beneficial to his career. He was 34 when he was first elected to the bench. With an appointment system based on merit, he said he might not have been chosen, due to his age, even though he had enough experience.
“You could say that a merit selection process (by appointment) might deprive a community of good young talent,” Adrine said.
Some states have adopted hybrid systems based on the Missouri Plan, established in 1940 in that state. A judicial commission names a few qualified judicial candidates, and the governor chooses one. The appointed judge serves one year, then must seek voter approval in a retention election. If the judge wins, he or she remains on the bench for a full term.
Adrine would like Ohio to explore such an approach. He said it might not raise the ceiling on judges and judicial candidates but would raise the floor because now the only qualification to be a judge is six years as a lawyer.
“We’ve had experiences in Cuyahoga County where people have a good running name and were elected to the bench with no qualifications and even some serious disqualifications,” Adrine said.
However, retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Lanzinger said even in a hybrid system, a good judge might face strong opposition and be defeated in a retention election.
“The process will always be political to some degree because many people want the job,” Lanzinger said.
Bob Sandrick is a freelance multimedia journalist in Cleveland. He can be emailed at email@example.com.