COLUMBUS, Ohio — Election Day is a couple weeks away and while most have their eyes glued on the race for the White House, there are key state races that will a direct impact on Ohioans including two for the Ohio Supreme Court.
One of those races pits a justice who has served eight years on the court against an appellate judge who once served as Secretary of State. Both live in Central Ohio.
Justice Judith French was appointed to the court in December 2012 by then-Gov. John Kasich. She is seeking her second full six-year term. She says she has worked on and off the bench to make the court more efficient.
"If there's one thing I hear from particularly lawyers and clients in the judicial system, it's it takes too long. It's too expensive. It takes too long. Just make a decision already. I need to be accountable to the public, and I need to make our judicial system in particular the Supreme Court of Ohio as efficient as possible," says French.
Her opponent, Jennifer Brunner, says judges like French believe increasing access to justice means making it easier to get a lawyer but Brunner feels it is also about having your voice heard.
"There's a tendency sometimes for judges to look at their dockets and to worry so much about efficiency that they're losing track of getting it right," says Brunner.
Brunner feels her experience is better suited for the court.
"I've had to look defendants in the eye when I know that the prison that I knew posing means that they will never come out of the prison. I've had to look witnesses in the eye and swear them in while they have handcuffs even brought from jail and they're sitting three feet away from me and I've watched victims suffer deeply. This is the kind of understanding you need to be a good justice who's deciding issues of great public importance," Brunner says.
Brunner says if elected she would like to make several changes to the court system including hearing more cases.
"The (Ohio) Supreme Court has decreased the number of appeals that it has taken in recent years. At one point, over the last couple years it was six cases out of every 100 that were filed that were even reviewed for appeal. That's not really very many," says Brunner.
French says the greatest obstacle to justice she has seen on the bench is lack of quality representation for poorer defendants.
"What I would like to see are greater resources being given to our legal aid organizations. For example, give them more attention, give them more resources and help those individuals find themselves representing themselves because they can't afford a lawyer," says French.
French also believes society has done a better job of getting women and minorities elected to the bench but believes "we could do better." She says she would like to see equal access "no matter what the barrier might be."
"If somebody has a physical disability, remove physical barriers. If somebody doesn't speak english, provide an interpreter. If there is racism, we remove that barrier," French says.
French says one way to remove those barriers is through a uniform statewide sentencing database, something Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has promised to deliver before the end of her term and something Brunner agrees with. On the topic of prison overcrowding, French says that is an issue for policy makers to resolve. Brunner says there needs to be better public education about the real purpose of prison and when it is possible to use alternatives do so. French also believes the war on drugs has been ineffective in treating addiction. Brunner is not sold the war on drugs working either and says more should be done to stop the demand for drugs.
As of now, conservative-leaning judges control five of the seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court. Two years ago, conservatives held every seat on the court. Then two liberal-leaning judges won. If Brunner and Cuyahoga County Democrat John O'Donnell were to win, the liberal wing would then have the majority.