MARC KOVAC: What's in a name? Potentially everything in a high court race

By MARC KOVAC | Record-Courier Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- Voters will select a couple of Ohio Supreme Court justices later this year.

Which likely will mean a lot of head scratching and yawning over contests that are overlooked as residents focus on the governor and other statewide offices.

That doesn't mean the Ohio Supreme Court isn't important -- on the contrary. But more often than not, despite the best efforts of campaigns and the news media, voters just don't pay as much attention to the people running for the state's high court.

Part of the issue is the nonpartisan nature of the races. While candidates run as Democrats or Republicans or otherwise on the primary ballot, no party affiliations are included with their names in November.

Add to that the nature of the campaign and the reluctance of judicial candidates to take firm stances on hot-button issues, such as the death penalty and abortion and such, since they may later have to decide cases involving those topics.

One exception to the rule was Bill O'Neill, a Democrat considered a long shot for the bench back in 2012 who wasn't afraid to voice his opinion. He upset the seated Republican incumbent.

There are two Ohio Supreme Court races to be decided this year.

Incumbent Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, a Republican, is seeking a full term, after unseating Democrat Justice Yvette McGee Brown a couple of years ago.

State Rep. Tom Letson, a Democrat from Warren in his final term in the legislature, is running against her, pending the results of the May primary.

Incumbent Justice Judith French, appointed by Gov. John Kasich in late 2012, also is seeking a full term on the high court.

Her expected challenger is Democratic Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge John P. O'Donnell.

All of these folks will make their cases to the electorate about why they are the better choice for Ohio Supreme Court.

All of them will have good reasons why their credentials and experience make them the ideal candidate for the bench.

In the end, however, for many voters, the choice may come down to the name on the ballot and not the person it represents.

Two years ago, O'Neill and Kennedy unseated incumbent justices; some argue their victories were bolstered by their Irish-sounding last names.

Using that reasoning, the race to watch this year is the one between French and O'Donnell.

The later may enter the race with an edge, given he shares the last name of a seated Supreme Court Justice, Terrence O'Donnell, a Republican who was reelected in 2012.

O'Donnell, the candidate, is no relation to O'Donnell, the justice. The former says he's qualified for the position and is running on his own record and qualifications.

But he's not ignoring the name connection, either.

"I do acknowledge the possibility of confusion," O'Donnell told me a couple of weeks ago, after he officially launched his campaign. "But, of course, that can cut both ways. Justice Terrence O'Donnell has, I think, a pretty good reputation. If I'm wrong on that, then somebody should tell me. If his reputation somehow rubs off on me in a good way, than I accept that but will have to try to live up to it as well."

He added, "On the other hand, I do want to appeal to all constituencies, but as you know I'm endorsed by the Democratic Party, and I may have some work to do to educate what should be a block of voters who should be in my camp that I am not from Justice Terrence O'Donnell's political party."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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