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Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith L. French is discovering Ohio on her own, traveling to all 88 counties this summer. She said she is learning a lot about the issues facing the different areas of the state.
Portage County and the offices of the Record-Courier were her 72nd stop on Friday.
Over the course of her trips she said she's learned about issues facing Ohioans, from the impact of the boom in oil and gas exploration in eastern Ohio to the statewide impact of drugs on the criminal justice system. French said she expects property-rights issues from oil and gas cases to filter through to the supreme court in the next two years.
French, who started her appointed term Jan. 1, is the second-newest justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. Justice William O'Neill, who served on the Eleventh District Court of Appeals that serves Portage County, started his six-year elected term the next day.
French is one of four women on the seven-member court, but doesn't find that majority remarkable.
"I think the legal profession has been on the forefront of getting women and minorities on the bench," she said.
She recalled when Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman named to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.
"I never had a thought that women couldn't be on the court," she said.
Prior to her appointment by Gov. John Kasich in December, she served at the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Franklin County since being elected in 2004.
French, 50, has been a lawyer for half her life. Before becoming a judge, she served as chief legal counsel to Gov. Bob Taft.
She also served as an assistant attorney general and then chief counsel in the office of Attorney General Betty Montgomery from 1997 to 2002. She began her state service in 1993 as deputy director for legal affairs at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
French grew up in the small town of Sebring in Mahoning County, and her first job was at a fast food restaurant in Alliance. She got all three of her degrees -- a bachelor's in political science, a master's in history and her law degree -- from The Ohio State University. She emphasized law "is not a position of privilege."
French, who put herself through college by working part-time, said she would like to be an example for young people to pursue their educations and to promote different routes to education. She said she would like students to see the broader range of occupations available to them. French said she has an interest in civic education, and would like to work with teachers to educate students about government.
French plans to run for a full six-year term on the court next year. Ohio is unique in having a partisan primary but then a nonpartisan general election for judges -- a confusing situation for voters. She also discussed the stringent fundraising rules imposed on judicial candidates at a time early voting and advertising by special interests are changing elections.
French said she favors judicial elections over a merit appointment system.
"I like elections. I think elections keep judges more accountable" to voters, "but there are probably some improvements that could be made," she said.
French said the question is how judicial elections can be made less partisan and how to get the electorate more informed. She noted there is a large drop off in votes cast in judicial races from those for president or governor.
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