YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – This year is the first election in about 100 years where judges’ political party affiliations will be on the ballot in a nonprimary race.
Our reporter spoke with candidates Marilyn Zayas and Justice Pat DeWine about whether or not they think partisan judge races are good or bad.
Current Ohio First District Court of Appeals Judge Zayas from the Democratic Party is the first Hispanic person on the Ohio Court of Appeals. If elected, she would be the first woman appointed to Ohio’s Supreme Court.
Incumbent Justice Pat DeWine is running for re-election on the Republican ticket. He has a longstanding career in law that began in the mid-1990s and is the son of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
Voter turnout for judiciary races is typically lower than other races. Possible reasons for this include judges running unopposed and general lack of knowledge of for nonpartisan races.
One of the issues at stake is how to make the Supreme Court more fair to everyone. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, Black male offenders get longer sentences than white male offenders who commit similar crimes.
“The sentencing database, that’s something I support. It would allow the public — not attorneys — the public to be able to look at sentencing from different areas,” Zayas said. “You really want for people that are on the bench to recognize what their biases are and to be able to work towards leaving that at the door.”
“Judges ought to apply laws. They shouldn’t be legislating from the bench. They shouldn’t be pursuing their own policy agenda,” DeWine said. “If we do that, we ensure that the same rules get applied to everyone.”
DeWine said rule of law and making communities safe is one of his top priorities. He mentioned a recent case in which he disagreed with the majority.
“The Ohio Supreme Court made this decision in the [DuBose v. McGuffey] case this year, which said judges can’t consider public safety when they can when they set bail for violent criminals. And that’s been very controversial,” DeWine said. “I was on the other side of that. I think judges should be able to consider public safety.”
Zayas said one case that sticks out to her is about a young mother who was battling the state for custody rights of her children. The lower court tried to impose additional requirements on the woman that were never part of court proceedings.
“The rationale as to why they terminated her parental rights is because there was certain things that they wanted her to do additionally. but those things were not in her case plan. And actually her … case plan worker said that she had met all the requirements of her case plan,” Zayas said.
Judges aren’t allowed to publicly comment on cases that could come before them, particularly with controversial topics like abortion.
“If it were up to me, judges would run with no political endorsement. And then, of course, no political affiliation. Because judges are not here to serve any politics. They’re here to serve people,” said Zayas. “That’s not what’s going on. We’re going the other direction.”
“If you’re going to have judges elected in partisan primaries, you ought to be honest with voters. It’s more information for voters,” DeWine said.
Zayas and DeWine said they would like to see improvements to the judicial system.
“Many of our communities are not as safe as they used to be,” DeWine said. “I think people worry that some of the things that are going on in the coast — as far as public safety and defund the police, no cash bail — that those things are going to come to Ohio and that’s going to make our communities less safe.”
“We also have specialty dockets like the mental health court, the veterans court, the drug court, which have been proven to be very successful in helping people get on their feet and be able to move past their past and be really great contributors to our state. We don’t even have all of those in every metropolitan area, never mind in all 88 counties,” Zayas said.
Zayas said as someone who grew up in Spanish Harlem, she was supposed “to be a statistic.” Now, she brings her knowledge of procedure and conformity from her days as an engineer to the court room.
“I want to be the judge that’s going to be out there sharing with people … the wholeness of our authority, which includes setting policy and procedure. I want to be the judge that is interested in working on policy and procedure so that we have as much uniformity in the courts and in sentencing.
DeWine said he has a strong background in law and politics with decades of experience. He’s sat on the bench at all levels of the Ohio judiciary and been a part of local government, such as Cincinnati city council.
“The issues I care about are, one, the rule of law, making sure that the rule of law is protected so that we have safe communities in the state. And two, is applying the law is written so that we have an environment where people can create jobs and the state can build better communities,” DeWine said.