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Kovoor asks court to void board vote

WARREN — The judicial candidacy eligibility of Republican Sarah Thomas Kovoor is at stake as the would-be candidate filed a lawsuit against the Trumbull County Board of Elections.

The filing asks a judge to void the elections board’s deadlocked result on Aug. 19 that sent the matter of her candidacy to Secretary of State Frank LaRose for a tiebreaker vote.

The injunction filed in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court also asks the Ohio Supreme Court to order the judge to rule quickly.

It alleges the elections board had an illegal meeting in violation of Ohio’s open meetings law to seek a legal opinion about Kovoor’s candidacy.

Kovoor was selected by the Trumbull County Republican Party’s central committee on Aug. 14 to be put on the November ballot to fill the remaining term of retired common pleas Judge Peter J. Kontos.

To make the matter more complicated, the case was assigned to Kontos’ docket, which is being heard by a group of visiting judges. No hearings are scheduled as the court record shows elections board members were notified of the legal action on Tuesday.

An election is slated for Nov. 8 to fill the rest of the term of Kontos, who retired July 31. The six-year term expires at the end of 2026. The elections board already has certified Democrat Cynthia Westcott Rice, a sitting appellate judge, for the race.

THE ISSUE

The issue deals with Kovoor of Howland being tapped Aug. 14 by the county GOP central committee by a 27-16 vote over attorney David Engler of Weathersfield, a former Mahoning County Democratic officeholder, to be the Republican name on the common pleas judgeship ballot.

The problem is that Kovoor of Howland had lost in the May GOP primary to incumbent John Eklund for a seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals.

In an opinion made to the elections board, assistant Prosecutors Bill Danso and Jason Toth cited Ohio Revised Code Section 3513.04: “No person who seeks party nomination for an office or position at a primary election by declaration of candidacy … shall be permitted to become a candidate by nominating petition … by declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate or by filling a vacancy under section 3531.31 of the Revised Code at the following general election for any office.”

According to the legal action, however, during the special elections board meeting, elections director Stephanie Penrose had stated the majority of the board had requested an opinion from the prosecutor’s office. The board, however, had no opening meetings between Aug. 14, when Kovoor was tapped by the county GOP and the Aug. 19 special meeting, the document states.

“On information and belief, a majority of the board took official action outside an open meeting by requesting an opinion from the prosecutor’s office,” in violation of the state’s open meetings law, the document states.

When Kovoor had asked for documentation that was examined by the election board in deciding how to vote on the certification, she was told she had to email the request before any documentation was released, according to the complaint.

In the meantime, election board members Ronald A. Knight and Arno A. Hill, the Republican members who voted to place Kovoor on the ballot; and Democrats Mark Alberini and Diana Marchese, the Democrats who voted against the certification; are preparing position papers to send to DeRose before he casts his tie-breaking vote.

Hill, who would not comment on Kovoor’s legal action, said the reasoning behind his vote on Aug. 14 was to keep people on the ballot, not to kick them off.

Alberini said the prosecutor’s office had advised the board that Kovoor’s candidacy was ineligible because of the state law that is referred to as a “second-chance / sore-loser candidates” provision. The only exceptions to this provision are for candidates seeking boards of education, the governing board of an educational service center or township trustee, the law states.

Before the vote Aug. 19, Kovoor told the elections board the statute “has nothing to do with me being a sore loser.” She said she wasn’t aware of the vacancy at the time of the May primary as the judgeship only became vacant in late July.

Kovoor said the circumstances of her case are different than the Ashtabula County case that unsuccessfully challenged the law in 2014.

“I was not nominated by petition but by a vote of the party central committee,” she said.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Sept. 16, 2014, in a 5-1 decision with one justice not participating, that Thomas Brown was ineligible to run for Ashtabula County Western Area Court judge in the November 2014 general election because he lost a Democratic primary on May 6 of that year for an Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court seat.

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