Balance of Ohio Supreme Court at stake in 2020 election

The Gavel Sculpture in downtown Columbus sits in the reflecting pool alongside the Ohio Supreme Court building.

The biggest race getting the least attention this fall might be the Ohio Supreme Court, which has been in GOP control for 35 years and will be expected to settle disputes that arise next year out of newly drawn congressional and legislative district maps.

Two incumbent Republicans, Justices Judith French and Sharon Kennedy, are being challenged by Democrats Jennifer Brunner and John P. O’Donnell, respectively.

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If Brunner and O’Donnell win, Democrats will occupy four of the seven seats on the high court. Currently, five seats are held by Republicans. Brunner is a former Ohio Secretary of State and current judge on the 10th District Court of Appeals. O’Donnell, who is making his third run for the high court, is a long-time Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge.

Their decisions impact how much Ohioans pay in taxes, whether utility companies can add fees to ratepayers' bills, how insurance and business laws are interpreted, what government records will be available to the public and more.

“Who is on the court really shapes the development of the law,” said Lawrence Baum, Ohio State University retired political scientist whose focus has been on U.S. courts.

The Ohio Supreme Court is in line to consider any challenges next year to new legislative and congressional district maps.

Despite the stakes, many Ohio voters often skip making picks for the high court.

Why?

In Ohio, candidates for the high court don’t carry partisan labels in general elections and it’s difficult for voters to find information about judicial candidates, said Baum. It’s uncommon for state supreme court decisions to get much publicity, so it’s hard for the average voter to find out much about justices’ positions, he said.

Justices serve six-year terms.

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The Ohio State Bar Association ranks French as highly recommended and the other three as recommended. The rankings were made based on evaluations of the candidates, written questionnaires, resumes and a review of each candidates’ decisions, financial disclosures and other public records.

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said voters can examine the OSBA ratings, rankings from minority bar associations, information posted by Judicial Votes Count, public statements made by candidates and decisions issued by candidates.

“This is the challenge. It’s a lot of homework,” she said.

READ MORE ABOUT THE CANDIDATES

Learn more about the four candidates in the race for the Ohio Supreme Court:

Judith French

Sharon Kennedy

Jennifer Brunner

John P. O’Donnell

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