Ohio Supreme Court: One incumbent looks to remain, another looks to be unseated

By: - November 4, 2020 1:00 am

Photo: Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy looks to have won reelection in unofficial results early Wednesday morning, while Justice Judith French looks headed for defeat by Democratic challenger Jennifer Brunner.

If this result holds as is expected, Republican justices will hold a 4-3 advantage on the state high court. With Brunner’s win, Democrats add to two Ohio Supreme Court wins in 2018.

While absentee and provisional ballot still need to be counted in official results, Kennedy is projected to defeat challenger John O’Donnell, a Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas judge, with 55% of the vote compared to 45% for O’Donnell.

As polls closed, O’Donnell jumped to a significant lead over Kennedy, but the gap quickly closed, and by the time the 3.4 million absentee votes were logged, Kennedy had squeezed ahead. After that, Kennedy’s lead continued to grow throughout the night.

Kennedy said Tuesday evening the changes in the vote totals was expected, but spending time with the voters in her home region in Southwest Ohio and other areas helped her connect with on-the-fence voters.

Many voters asked her why the Supreme Court races were nonpartisan, and how much enforcement the court has over legislation passed in the statehouse.

“Having that honest conversation about what the limitation of the role of a judge is, it gets them thinking about the difference in what we do,” Kennedy said.

O’Donnell congratulated Kennedy in a statement to the Ohio Capital Journal, saying “she earned it.”

“I remain extremely grateful to the multitude that lent material support to my candidacy and I look forward to continuing to serve Ohio as a dedicated trial court judge,” O’Donnell wrote late Tuesday night.

Justice Judith French, however, saw her seat go to the challenger, 10th District Court of Appeals judge and former state Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. Brunner won with 55% of the vote compared to 45% for French in unofficial results.

Brunner was out to a lead similar to O’Donnell’s, but higher, early in the night, though French’s numbers never caught up.

“I’m very pleased,” Brunner told the Ohio Capital Journal on Tuesday night. “It’s a very high calling in public service.”

With the new position on the bench, Brunner said she plans to take her experience from lower courts, as well as experience overseas and with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office to help bring the court forward, particularly when it comes to sentencing reform.

She said the accountability and transparency of a system that shows typical sentences for similar crimes is a necessity to bring trust back to the state’s judicial system.

“For people to have confidence in the justice system, they have to be able to see the good, the bad and the ugly,” Brunner said. “You can’t change something until you’ve actually defined it.”

Brunner said she’d received an email from French’s campaign manager Tuesday night, and planned to speak with her opponent Wednesday. French was unavailable for comment on Tuesday night.

Kennedy called French a “very thoughtful colleague” and said her loss on the bench is “devastating,” but also said Brunner will receive the level of collegiality that is expected of Supreme Court justices.

“Any new addition to the bench, they will be welcomed, treated with collegiality and an open door,” Kennedy said.

Numbers from last night won’t be official until provisional and absentee ballots are counted. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has directed county boards of elections to follow an “expedited” schedule for this, telling the 88 counties to begin their official canvass on Nov. 14 and finish counting by Nov. 18.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.