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Justice race to be fascinating

Next year’s election for Ohio Supreme Court chief justice should be among the most interesting judicial races in some time.

Three current justices are planning to run for the court’s top spot, coinciding with an expected change in law to now include party affiliation.

Jennifer Brunner, whose first term on the court began in January, recently announced she would seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for chief justice. That should clear the Democratic field as Brunner is too strong a candidate to face a legitimate challenge from someone in her party.

At the same time, Brunner’s decision to seek the position makes it a little tougher for Democrats to gain control of the Supreme Court.

Republicans hold a 4-3 advantage on the court with Democrats picking up all of their seats in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, cannot seek re-election next year due to Ohio’s age limit for judges.

In addition to the chief justice position, there are two justice seats on next year’s ballot.

If Brunner wins, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, can select her replacement regardless of whether he’s re-elected. The term of DeWine, who’s seeking a second four-year term, expires Jan. 13, 2023, and the chief justice seat starts Jan. 1 that year, giving DeWine time to pick a Republican to fill Brunner’s seat should she be elected chief justice.

Brunner said two other opportunities exist for Democrats to gain court seats next year.

Realistically, Brunner is the Democrats’ best chance to win chief justice. She beat incumbent Republican Judi French in 2020 by double digits, was elected secretary of state in 2006 and served as judge on 10th District Court of Appeals and Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

There’s more intrigue on the Republican side.

Justices Sharon Kennedy and Pat DeWine are planning to run for chief justice.

Like Brunner, Kennedy, elected to her second six-year term last year, would run safe. If she loses, she doesn’t have to give up her spot. Kennedy has proven a strong conservative candidate with a great last name for politics.

DeWine’s situation is completely different. His term ends in January 2023. Rather than seek re-election to that seat, he wants to run for chief justice.

The DeWine name is as well-known in state politics as any. His father, the governor, will be on the ballot with the justice. With the conservative backlash the governor is getting, it’s hard to gauge if his son will benefit from sharing a ballot with him.

These court contests are typically resolved during the Ohio Republican Party endorsement process.

But that’s not likely to happen this time.

To be endorsed by the Republican Party’s state central committee, consisting of 66 members, for an open court seat, a candidate needs two-thirds support, said Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson. Johnson will head a GOP judicial screening committee interviewing candidates for the three judicial seats and make endorsement recommendations.

If no candidate gets two-thirds support, the party won’t endorse, Johnson said.

That will be a hurdle nearly impossible to jump over.

Johnson said: “You have two outstanding justices competing. It puts me in a difficult, but good, position because I have no bias. It will be a difficult decision by the committee. A lot can happen between now and then.”

Johnson said he never wants a contested primary. He hopes one withdraws before the May 2022 primary.

If Kennedy wins, the state party would recommend to the governor a replacement for her unexpired term. If his son, Pat, isn’t elected chief justice or if he chooses to seek re-election and loses, would DeWine appoint him to Kennedy’s unexpired term?

If Pat DeWine runs for chief justice and his seat is open, Mary DeGenaro is interested in the Republican nomination for that post. DeGenaro is a Poland resident who was an appointed Ohio Supreme Court justice in 2018 and lost that year’s general election. She is a former longtime 7th District Court of Appeals judge who currently is the state auditor’s chief legal counsel.

Finally, elections for Supreme Court and court of appeals seats will almost certainly be impacted by a law expected to pass the state Legislature requiring political party affiliations for candidates for those positions in general elections.

Republicans want the change to let voters identify their candidates in those top court seats as they’ve lost three of four Supreme Court races since 2018 and recently control of the majority on the statewide appellate bench.

Skolnick covers politics for the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator.

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