News: A Rare Judicial Contest

This time voters actually get a choice

Mark Bealer

Jim O'Reilly, Democratic candidate for Hamilton County Appeals Court, says he offers voters an alternative to the usual background for judges: service in the Republican- controlled prosecutor's office.

In their rare, contested race for an open seat on the Hamilton County Court of Appeals, Pat Dinkelacker and Jim O'Reilly agree on this much: The choice is between continuity and change:

· Republican Dinkelacker says "West side values" that sustained him as an assistant prosecutor and trial judge will guide him if he wins in November. He will continue to be a "tough, law and order and follow the law" judge.

"I'm out on the campaign trail, and people like that more than anything," Dinkelacker says.

· Democrat O'Reilly says, "We need a fresh approach to protecting the community's interests in civil and criminal matters," and "the closed system with no choices" at the courthouse has driven away many potential voters.

Dinkelacker is confident that his record appeals to voters. O'Reilly says the choice is between "a well-credentialed alternative or do they want more of the same."

They are seeking the seat being vacated by Democrat Judge Bob Gorman, barred by age from serving again. The position pays $126,250 this year. That's $10,150 more than Dinkelacker earns as a common pleas judge.

'They think I'm fair'
Dinkelacker and O'Reilly are experienced lawyers, one a product of the classic courthouse career path, the other coming from corporate and academic careers.

This is the first judicial race for O'Reilly, 58. For Dinkelacker, 52, it's the first time he's faced an opponent since 1990. Both are campaigning as if victory and a six-year term on the court of appeals crowns a career.

Neither man will be out of work if he loses. Dinkelacker's common pleas term ends in 2011. O'Reilly can continue to teach at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and write law textbooks: 32 in print and one ready for the press.

Typically, Hamilton County Democrats can't find judicial candidates. Incumbency is close to life tenure in the GOP-controlled courthouse. Of 37 judicial races since 2000, two have been contested, O'Reilly says.

Both men are deep into retail politics, going to voters and shaking hands. They also have Web sites — and — although O'Reilly's is the more ambitious.

Dinkelacker wants to move up because "it's a position where I can do more good. ... What I would like to add is 27 years of doing cases every day. That perspective would be valuable over there."

That said, he's not going to tell them their business.

"I truly know that I will not be an activist judge," he says. "I've been very satisfied with the court of appeals. They're doing the best they can."

Ohio's General Assembly passes the laws, and appellate courts interpret them.

"You're deciding what the law should be for Hamilton County," Dinkelacker says.

That's subject to review by the Ohio Supreme Court, but "For Hamilton County, we are the tip of the pyramid. What we decide here (on the First District Court of Appeals) becomes the law of Hamilton County."

The six appellate judges have a very different pace from common pleas, where major civil and criminal cases are heard. They hear oral arguments on three-judge panels, and each judge has two law clerks to help with research and writing. No stranger to reading lawyers' motions and writing opinions, nevertheless, Dinkelacker says, "I've pushed hard for 27 years, and maybe it's the good Lord saying, 'It's time to step back.' "

Don't expect Dinkelacker to apologize for the tradition of Hamilton County judges rising from among veteran prosecutors.

"I am absolutely proud of the fact that I was an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor," he says. "I am what I am. ... The compliment that I think the most of is that they think I'm fair."

O'Reilly's career path couldn't be more different. He retired from Procter & Gamble in 1997 and began teaching full-time as visiting professor at the UC law school in 1998. By then he'd taught part-time there for 18 years.

'Quality control'
A former New York State Parkway Police officer, O'Reilly yields nothing on law-and-order and promises to seek a "fair and just solution" consistent with the law as an appellate judge.

Moreover, he is emphatic about his independence.

"I ... owe nothing to the courthouse powers and can be perceived by the public as being impartial and fair on appeal of cases brought by prosecutors, since I have never been employed by the prosecutor and have never been socially or professionally dependent on friends inside the courthouse," O'Reilly says.

Just as Dinkelacker's life after hours has been complicated by the unfamiliar demands of a contested election, O'Reilly is giving up a full teaching load to campaign. He is, however, teaching his products liability class.

At P&G, he worked in administrative law, products liability, labor law and some criminal law. In addition to bringing a fresh perspective to the bench, "I value the roles of the appeals court in shaping the continuity of the law and the progress of the law. You can't do this in the trial courts."

To do that, O'Reilly continued, the three-judge panels have to do more than issue typically brief decisions.

"Our appeals court does not help the litigants, or the lower courts, when in two pages it simply affirms the trial judge," he says. "Sometimes an appeals court decision needs to explain whether the lower court judge acted unconstitutionally. ... This appeals court should explain more, justify more, show more independent 'quality control' overseeing the lower courts."

O'Reilly describes himself as collegial and at ease working with others, mentioning P&G, UC, Wyoming City Council and the American Bar Association (ABA). At the ABA, he succeeded Stephen G. Breyer as vice chairman of the 16,000-member Administrative Law and Regulatory Section when President Clinton named then-judge Breyer to the U.S. Supreme Court. O'Reilly became section chair in 1996.

When he initially considered his run for Gorman's seat, O'Reilly says he first asked former Appellate Judge Marianna Brown Bettman.

"She said I would be a good fit," O'Reilly says.

That pleased O'Reilly.

"I love interacting with bright minds" and he is energized by an "intellectual curiosity about new ideas and challenges and how those challenges affect our larger community," he says. ©

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