News: Judging Who Judges Us

Democrats making serious effort this year in local judicial races

Graham Lienhart

Fanon Rucker (L) is running in District 3 for Hamilton County Municipal Court. Judge William Mallory Jr., serving District 1, seeks re-election.

The Nov. 8 election will give voters more choices than usual, with six judgeships contested in Hamilton County Municipal Court. Five Democrats and one Republican are challenging six incumbent judges — seats that often go uncontested.

All candidates have performed the standard stumping, appearing at parades, festivals and other gatherings, but Democratic Party Chair Tim Burke says Democrats have redoubled their grassroots efforts, campaigning door to door. In District 3, candidate Ted Berry professes to have knocked on 9,000 doors so far with several weeks to go.

"I think it's important, if you're going to ask someone to vote for you, that you should meet them so they can get to know you face to face and see what you stand for," Berry says.

The son of former Cincinnati Mayor Theodore Berry, the city's first African-American mayor, Berry is one of three new judicial candidates with strong name recognition, Burke says.

District 3 candidate Fanon Rucker ran well as a write-in candidate for county prosecutor in 2004 (see "Dark Horse," issue of Oct. 13-19, 2004). District 4 candidate Martha Good was the Democratic candidate for clerk of courts. Burke says both conducted high-profile campaigns last year and received a majority of votes in the districts in which they're running this year.

"There was a real effort to go out and find as many well qualified challengers as possible," he says.

"All of our folks are out working their tails off, so, yeah, we feel pretty good about our chances this year."

'The people should decide'
Municipal court judges serve six-year terms and preside over civil cases involving claims of $15,000 or less, misdemeanor criminal cases and preliminary hearings for felonies.

Judges are required to be impartial, so the Ohio Canons of Judicial Ethics severely restricts candidates' ability to discuss their views, leaving basically three issues to sell to voters: their experience, how to improve the system and their opponents' shortcomings.

In District 2, Rosalind Florez, R-Clifton, a mediator in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, challenges incumbent Cheryl Grant (D-Hyde Park).

District 3 brings voters two heated races, with trial attorney Berry (D-Wyoming) challenging incumbent Kendal Coes (R-Springfield Township) and Lincoln Heights Prosecutor Rucker (D-Roselawn) challenging incumbent David Stockdale (R-Wyoming).

District 4 also has two high-profile races. Good (D-Hyde Park), a mediator, is challenging incumbent Russell Mock (R-Anderson Township), and trial attorney Jerry Metz (D-Mount Washington) is challenging incumbent Julie Stautberg (R-Anderson Township).

In District 7, defense attorney Jonathan Dameron (D-Golf Manor) is challenging incumbent Lisa Allen (R-Cleves), wife of former County Prosecutor Michael Allen.

In District 2 and District 3, incumbents Grant and Stockdale hope their extensive years of experience on the bench sway voters. Both Grant, a former Cincinnati Police officer, social worker and professor at the University of Cincinnati, and Stockdale, a former mayor and prosecutor in Mount Healthy, have been elected to two terms.

Stockdale says he offers 17 years judicial experience, runs a tight docket and has helped streamline the case system through the years. A recent appointee to the court's Interpreter Committee, Grant says, if re-elected, she hopes to break through language barriers so everyone before the court understands the law.

"I feel we need to reflect on the belief to be inclusive and work with the diversity in the community, because when leadership responds with hope we leave the community not feeling depressed," she says. "Leadership needs to express hope and new expectations, and all three branches of government need to buy into that future."

Challengers Florez and Rucker say they know they have their work cut out for them. Rucker says his experience as a prosecutor and in civil, criminal defense and employment law would bring diversity to the court. If elected, he says he would write decisions rather than only give them orally, so those in court can understand why they were rendered.

Florez says she's focusing her campaign on winning voters' trust. As a former reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, she says she's always been in search of the truth and would carry that passion to the bench.

"I think it's important to follow the law to the letter of the law, to be fair, to be tough and to run a good docket and a swift docket," she says.

Other candidates are focusing on the fact that the incumbents were appointed to fill unexpired terms, not elected. Both Good and Berry are criticizing their opponents' appointments, saying they were based on politics instead of experience.

"I think the people should decide who should be their judges," Berry says. "They should be elected and not selected."

But Coes, Berry's opponent, appointed in 2004, says he's consistently worked seven days a week.

"I became a judge Feb. 28 and I worked tirelessly since then to meet as many of the people that I serve in Hamilton County, but particularly in my district," Coes says.

Mock, also appointed in 2004, says his varied background as an assistant county prosecutor and defense attorney more than qualifies him for the bench. Both Mock and Coes say they have tried more than 6,000 cases since accepting their seats. Mock says he wishes he had the resources to increase the amount of county and city prosecutors to help clear the court's backlog.

Good agrees that something has to be done to improve the current system, in which all parties for the day's docket are ordered to be in court at 9 a.m., then wait for hours for their cases to be called. Good says she'd like to see full-time court employees spend more than half a day actually working.

"If you ever go to the courthouse in the afternoon, you'll see it's virtually empty, and most of the judicial offices are empty," she says. "What I really care about is making municipal court more effective, more efficient and to respect people's time."

Good has more 20 years experience practicing law after having graduated first in her class at UC Law School.

Late for work
In the second race in District 4, Metz says he'd, too, like to restructure the system to run more efficiently. He says his experience includes 25 years as a trial attorney, mediator and arbitrator. But he says he gained his most valuable lessons as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge David Porter.

"Judge Porter was pretty much of a model for me," Metz says. "He treated everyone who came into his court with complete respect. He treated each person as a human being worthy of respect and equal dignity before the law."

Stautberg says that having worked as a prosecutor in the municipal, common pleas and juvenile courts prepared her well to be a judge.

"If someone is going to have contact with the court, it would be municipal court, and that's why I think it's important to have people that are qualified and who are interested in doing the job at hand," she says.

The only race where a candidate's job performance has been an issue is District 7, where Dameron points to the fact that incumbent Allen is continuously late for court.

"It's just well known at the courthouse by defense lawyers and prosecutors, police officers, that she is chronically late for court," Dameron says. "I know some people think that's trivial but I don't think it is, because it's just a respect for your constituents."

As a trial attorney, Dameron says, he doesn't look at himself as politician but as a regular person running to give voters a choice.

"I think by simply being on time I can increase and make the court better," he says. "It's a simple thing but it really does have an effect."

Allen ran unopposed last election after earlier being appointed to the court. As a former Cincinnati prosecutor, she gained notoriety by closing down the Elder Café in Over-the-Rhine, a haven for illegal activity. She says the largest problem facing judges is the enormous caseload each needs to handle.

"The dockets get larger and larger over the years," she says. "I try between 30 and 50 cases a day. Some days the docket is completely out of control. I think I heard we try an average of 6,000 cases a year."

While the Republican and Democratic parties have been busy raising funds for their candidates, Board of Elections Director John Williams reminds voters that the municipal court election is a non-partisan race, with no party designations are on the ballot.

"I think in some cases, party certainly enters into it, but I'd like to think that it's more of a question of looking at someone's credentials and voting that way," Williams says. "Voters, I think, are very intelligent, and sometimes the candidates don't give them enough credit for voting their will, and so I would like to think that the best candidate wins."

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