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Trumbull prosecutor’s office alums vie for judge

Howland attorney Kovoor challenges incumbent Rice in appellate court contest

WARREN — The two women running for a seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals used to try criminal cases in the 1990s for the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office.

Sarah Thomas Kovoor and Judge Cynthia Rice both were assistant prosecutors working in Common Pleas Court for Prosecutor Dennis Watkins’ office.

On Nov. 3, voters will pick one of these women to sit on the bench, hearing appeals and making decisions about many of the cases from the same court and others in the five-county district.

Rice has been on the appeals bench since moving from the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2003.

“I have 18 years experience hearing a wide range of cases. We see everything, and it is up to the appeals judge to apply the law to the facts of the case,” Rice said in a recent Zoom interview.

Meanwhile, Kovoor has sought other judgeships, but said her experience as both defense and prosecuting attorney has given her the knowledge to sit on the appellate bench.

“While I was in the Trumbull County prosecutor’s office, I worked on the Stanley Adams capital murder case that received a successful conviction,” Kovoor said in a recent Zoom interview. “But since leaving, I have been top-to-bottom in criminal defense. I have argued cases ranging from the entire spectrum, including ones that have formed good case law,” Kovoor said, noting she worked on a successful Illinois case that took a year and a half.

Kovoor said while her opponent has been on the public payroll for 25 years, she has been in the private sector, most recently being a partner in a Howland practice.

“I’ve started my own business and have worried about paying bills and keeping the lights on. It is important to have a balance,” Kovoor said.

Rice, however, has said the COVID-19 pandemic has added to her experience, as she has been the 11th District court’s administrative judge.

“It is up to me to ensure that our court is safe and the employees feel comfortable coming to work,” Rice said.

She said the pandemic hasn’t created any delays or any case backlogs.

“It hasn’t slowed us down,” she said.

Born in Kerala, India, Kovoor came to this country at age 7.

“Growing up in this country, I was able to see all the good that the American legal system can do and the importance of an impartial judiciary in administering justice. It was this insight that attracted me to the legal field and drove me to enroll in the University of Akron School of Law.”

Rice said she broke into law in the late 1980s in a family practice in Hubbard with husband Ron (now Trumbull County County Common Pleas judge), sister-in-law Theresa Rice Daugherty and father-in-law, Ray Rice.

“I usually got the cases they didn’t want to take on, which was usually domestic ones,” she said.

As for endorsements by bar associations, Kovoor said judges should not be taking money from any attorney who is practicing in that court.

“If they (judges) do (take money), then they should recuse themselves,” she said.

Rice, who has obtained “preferred candidate” status from the Ohio Bar Association, said she wishes judges wouldn’t be political.

“I would rather be judged by my performance,” Rice said.

Kovoor said she has endorsements from citizen groups like Ohio Right to Life and Ohio Citizens Pact.

Kovoor, who touts endorsements from Ohio Right to Life and Citizens Ohio, said she is concerned about increasing encroachment of politics into the judiciary.

“Judges should not make laws; that is the job of the legislature. As for legislators asking for help, there is a position for that and this is called law professor,” she said.

Rice said it has become difficult during COVID-19 to reach voters.

“We can’t even shake hands any more,” she said.

In the county prosecutor’s office, Rice served as chief counsel for the Drug Prosecution Unit, responsible for prosecuting all felony drug crimes in Trumbull County. When she moved to the state attorney’s office, she helped fight drug abuse with such programs as Weed and Seed in Youngstown “weeding out” violent criminals and “seeding” high-crime areas with human services and educational programs.

“At the time in the early 2000s, Youngstown had a major drug problem,” Rice said.

On the bench, Rice said she advises her colleagues on the 11th District bench about criminal law and likes to consult with the other justices on the court.

“I like to talk to Judge Cannon about zoning issues,” she said. “We are a rather diverse group.”

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