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Bar debates judge ratings

By Mike SeverRecord-Courier staff writer Published: August 17, 1997 12:00 AM

Other area attorneys say judging the judge hopefuls would provide a needed public service especially because the November ballots will be crowded with eight candidates for three judicial seats.

Ravenna Municipal Court Judge Donald Martell wants to fill out the remaining term left by Judge John Enlow's election to Common Pleas Court. Attorney Sharon Ann Sabarese is contending to unseat the appointed Martell for the term which runs to Dec. 31, 2001.

Five challengers are contending for the seat being vacated by Kent Municipal Court Judge Perry Dickinson who is retiring at the end of this year.

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The contenders are Louis Bertrand, Ronald J. Kane, Eugene L. Muldowney, Laurie J. Pittman and Francis M. Ricciardi.

Ravenna Municipal Court Judge Barbara Watson is unopposed for re-election.

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Some members of the bar want to help voters narrow the field.

Attorney Joseph Giulitto, president of the bar association, revived the idea that the association publicly rate judicial candidates. In an Aug. 4 letter accompanied by a ballot, Giulitto asked members to vote on whether the bar association should judge judicial hopefuls.

Giulitto said other counties' bar associations have been rating candidates for years. And this year's elections have an unusually large number of candidates. Rating them could be a public service to help inform voters, he said.

Ravenna attorney Jerry Goodwin, who sent a letter of his own to fellow members of the bar, said he's opposed to the idea for several reasons.

"The first reason is that Joe is the campaign treasurer for (municipal court judge candidate) Laurie Pittman," Goodwin said.

Goodwin acknowledged he is supporting Muldowney, a Portage County assistant prosecutor, in his own bid against Pittman and the three others vying for the Dickinson's seat.

"But it has nothing to do with that," he said of his opposition to rating candidates.

"My concern is that most of them would use it as a popularity contest," Goodwin said. "We have enough problems with our public image. I'm concerned that it would degenerate into a beauty contest run by lawyers."

"We're buying a pig in a poke, and I voted against it," Goodwin said of the proposal.

But Giulitto said the idea to rate candidates wasn't his.

"It's not Joe Giulitto doing something," he said. "I'm not going to take the credit for authoring the idea, because I did not. I received some requests from bar members to bring that up to the executive committee.

"The executive committee unanimously voted to allow the bar to express its opinion whether or not the bar should do that. So I wrote to the members of the bar precisely on that point,"

Results of the bar members' voting won't be known until the association's executive committee meets at the end of the month, Giulitto said.

Gerald B. Graham, a past president of the county bar, said he remembers the issue was raised when Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Kainrad and then-Prosecutor Ronald Kane ran against each other.

"That was a bitterly contested election. The bar debated the heck out of that and overwhelmingly rejected (ratings)."

Graham said he's offered an alternative proposal to "depoliticize the thing," but hasn't heard from the executive committee.

He suggested that ratings be done only in elections with more than three candidates for one seat. And then members of the bar would be polled whether each candidate was qualified or not qualified, and the voting would be tracked by an independent accounting firm.

Graham, a Republican, said he opposes ratings by a committee.

"I'm afraid the Democrats would just pack that committee and we would be just kissing their rings to just get a Republican candidate on the committee. I think it's a bad idea.

"Mr. Giulitto's idea the concept is good, because we have five candidates running and the general public will not be familiar with all of them," Graham said.

"We have people running for a trial position who do not do trial work, who have not tried cases, and who have not spent time on the other side of the bench. I think there is some obligation for the bar to be heard by the general public," Graham said.

Norm Sandvoss, a lawyer and head of the Portage County Republican Party executive committee, said he's "not discussed the issue at all with our executive committee, and I have never looked at it as a Democrat-versus-Republican thing at all.''

Goodwin said it isn't appropriate for the smaller Portage bar association to rate candidates.

"The places that do it are huge bar associations with hundreds and thousands of members. We don't have that kind of base," he said. The Portage County Bar Association has about 150 members.

The Ohio Bar Association has no policy or position on whether local bars should rate candidates, said Dennis Whalen, director of media relations for the state organization. But the canons of legal ethics say that "lawyers ought to do what they can to help their fellow citizens get accurate information on potential judges," he said.

"It's done in a whole lot of different ways," Whalen said. The state bar rates candidates for the state supreme court by a special commission that seeks information from and about candidates, and even reads their legal opinions. But it is not without its pitfalls, Whalen said.

"It is not a non-controversial thing to do," he said of ratings. "But by and large the public appreciates it and lawyers feel it is something they ought to do."

But how the bar goes about providing that service is another matter.

"It's just too open to abuse,'' Goodwin said, noting the Portage bar has more Democrats than Republicans. "It was never described how they would do it. This is a small bar association, we just don't need that," he said.

"The intent was to see if this would be a public service," Giulitto said. "The idea was that, and obviously some people might have a different interpretation. It's a free country, you can believe what you want."

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