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Sarah Thomas Kovoor eligibility in question

‘2nd-chance / sore-loser candidates’ statue debated after GOP selection

WARREN — A state law and a 2014 Ohio Supreme Court decision upholding it put in question the eligibility of Sarah Thomas Kovoor, nominated by the Trumbull County Republican Party’s central committee as its candidate for an open common pleas court judicial seat.

The Trumbull County Board of Elections is expected to consider the issue of Kovoor’s eligibility at its Friday meeting.

“I am seeking further advice from legal counsel on the matter,” board Director Stephanie Penrose said.

Ohio Revised Code Section 3513.04 states: “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.”

The only exceptions are for boards of education, the governing board of an educational service center or township trustee.

Kovoor of Howland lost the Republican primary in May for a seat on the 11th District Court of Appeals to incumbent John Eklund.

That may prohibit her from running for the common pleas court seat under the law that Mike DeWine, when he was attorney general in 2014, referred to as a “second-chance / sore-loser candidates” provision in an Ohio Supreme Court filing.

The Sunday vote by the county Republican central committee to make Kovoor the party’s nominee was done under Section 3531.31 (I) that permits political parties to fill vacancies if an elected officeholder dies or resigns subsequent to the 150th day before the primary and prior to the 86th day before the general election.

That was triggered by Democrat Peter Kontos’ July 31 resignation from his common pleas court seat.

KOVOOR RESPONDS

Kovoor said the statute “has nothing to do with the vacancy on the common pleas court or my eligibility to fill it.”

She said the law applies to those who are nominated in a primary and not to candidates who lost.

Kovoor pointed to the last line of Section 3531.31 (I), which states: “If a person has been nominated in a primary election or nominated by petition … the authorized committee of that political party shall not select and certify a person as the party candidate.”

Kovoor said: “I can be nominated for a different seat. What they’re trying to do is avoid people running for two seats at the same time. That’s not the case here.”

When told of the potential issue, Trumbull County Republican Party Chairman Michael Bollas, who was elected Aug. 4 to that position, said: “We didn’t know anything about this. Neither one of the two other candidates brought this up. We don’t get information from the board of elections. They say it’s up to the party to contact them.”

Bollas said Kovoor won the nomination and “at this point, just let it go or see if someone files an objection. I’m not going to go against the central committee unless the board of elections comes up with something that she can’t run.”

Trumbull Republicans submitted Kovoor’s name to the elections board by Monday’s deadline for the open seat. Monday also was the last day to change candidates for the seat, so if the board rules Kovoor ineligible — and if a potential legal challenge is filed — Republicans can’t field someone else.

There is an Aug. 29 write-in deadline, although Bollas previously acknowledged it would be “difficult” for a candidate to win that way.

HIGH COURT RULES

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. The decision pointed to the state law prohibiting a person losing a primary from running in a general election in the same year.

The decision striking down Brown’s candidacy read: “Ohio clearly has a legitimate interest in preventing conflicts among party members, an interest in preventing the possibility of voter confusion and an interest in preventing candidacies that may conceivably be prompted by short-range goals.”

The decision also said Brown failed to “show beyond a reasonable doubt that R.C. 3513.04 is unconstitutional.”

Trumbull Democrats nominated Cynthia Westcott Rice of Brookfield, an 11th District Court of Appeals judge since 2003, for the open common pleas court seat. Rice ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination last Thursday.

Kovoor was selected Sunday by Republican central committee members 27 to 16 over David Engler of Weathersfield for the nomination.

The winner of the Nov. 8 election will serve the remainder of Kontos’ term, which expires Dec. 31, 2026.

CLOSED SESSION

The media was not permitted to attend Sunday’s Republican central committee meeting.

Normally, the party can close such meetings to the public.

But in a unanimous May 22, 2017, decision by the 11th District Court of Appeals in which it ruled that typically central committee meetings can be closed to the public, it states when the committee appoints “individuals to fill county office vacancies,” the committee members are “public officers” and those meetings are public.

After being read that passage in the court decision, Bollas said, “OK. I can correct that in the future.”

Trumbull Republicans have had issues with selecting a candidate for Kontos’ seat.

That was because of the timing of Kontos’ resignation and a change in party leadership.

The party had plans to forward the names of three finalists to Gov. Mike DeWine’s office for him to choose a successor and then have that person be the Republican nominee.

Robert Carr, the party’s first vice chairman who was serving as interim chairman, said July 26 the finalists would be given to DeWine’s office by Aug. 2. But then he said the party was slowing down the process.

Carr became interim chairman after the July 17 resignation of Kenneth Kline as the party’s leader. Kontos announced his early retirement July 19.

Bollas was elected Aug. 4 as chairman and didn’t learn until last Thursday that the filing deadline for the seat was Monday.

He said last Thursday the party wouldn’t file a nominee by the deadline as it waited for the Republican governor’s appointment.

A day later, the party announced an emergency meeting that acknowledged was a violation of the party’s bylaws requiring a 10-day notice for meetings.

The party also rushed the names of Kovoor, Engler and Margo S. Meola of Howland, who applied for the appointment but wasn’t interviewed, to DeWine’s office late Thursday.

Bollas said none of the 43 central committee members at Sunday’s meeting objected to suspending the rules. But some members who didn’t attend said they wouldn’t because of the bylaw violation.

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