The race for Ohio Supreme Court chief justice is on

By: - June 9, 2021 12:55 am

Courtesy of the Ohio Supreme Court

2022 race could prove complicated for Ohio Democrats

At least two justices on the Ohio Supreme Court are eyeing the chief justice position and plan to campaign for the top judicial seat in 2022.

Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Patrick DeWine are planning to run for chief justice next year. These two, and potentially another Republican on the court, want to replace the sitting Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. 

O’Connor, a Republican, is barred from running for another term. Ohio’s age limitation law restricts judges from campaigning for reelection after turning 70 years old.

This age limit rule may play a factor in the upcoming chief justice election. Complicating things further is the overall judicial landscape in Ohio that could hurt Democrats’ standing on the court — even if Brunner or another Democrat wins the top spot.

The candidates

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick DeWine. Photo courtesy the Ohio Supreme Court.

DeWine, the son of Gov. Mike DeWine, is a former judge of the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court and First District Court of Appeals (based in Cincinnati). He was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2016 and was already slated to be up for election again in 2022.

Brunner is a former secretary of state as well as a former judge of the Franklin County Common Pleas Court and Tenth District Court of Appeals (based in Columbus). She was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court last November.

Brunner is just six months into her six-year term. She said her prior experience and initial work on the state’s highest court would help to demonstrate her qualifications for the role. The court has worked remotely thus far in 2021; Brunner said living in Columbus has allowed her to work inside the courthouse building and become quickly familiar with its various duties.

In a statement issued after Brunner’s announcement, Justice DeWine said voters in 2022 would have “a choice between two distinct judicial philosophies” in the race for chief justice.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner. Photo courtesy the Ohio Supreme Court.

“Do Ohioans want a Chief Justice who will uphold the law as written and not legislative from the bench, or do they want an activist judiciary?” his statement reads. “I look forward to continuing to travel the state and outlining my vision for an Ohio Supreme Court committed to our constitutional principles.”

DeWine may have a primary election to contend with first. Justice Sharon Kennedy, another Republican, is also reportedly considering a run for chief justice. Kennedy was just reelected to the court in 2020.

The race dynamics

The Ohio Supreme Court functions differently than the Ohio General Assembly, which sees its members campaign for state legislative seats and are later elevated to leadership positions by those in their political caucuses.

The position of chief justice is its own specific elected office, meaning the other justices will campaign for O’Connor’s seat regardless of the timing of their own terms.

If a sitting justice (such as DeWine or Brunner) is elected to the chief justice position, the governor appoints a replacement to fill their open seat.

With a Republican currently in the governor’s seat, the GOP stands to benefit from these rules.

Should Brunner win the November 2022 election for chief justice, she would take office as chief justice on Jan. 1, 2023. 

Gov. Mike DeWine’s term ends a little over a week later. Even if he loses his own reelection bid, he would theoretically have the chance to appoint a Republican to replace Brunner before his gubernatorial successor takes office.

David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and a former Democratic Party speechwriter, summed it up this way: “This is a heads I lose, tails I also lose proposition for the Democrats.”

Brunner said she is determined to campaign for the chief justice seat regardless of the politics at play.

“I step up anyways because first of all, this is not something that I do because I’m a Democrat,” she told reporters. “This is something I do because I’m a judge, because I love the law, I love justice and I love public service. I know that if I can do what I do now but in an expanded platform as chief justice, there’s a lot of good I can do for that period of time in Ohio that I am given the privilege to do public service to make peoples’ lives better.”

Becoming chief justice would also potentially cut her time on the judicial body short by several years. As noted, justices cannot run for a new term after turning 70 years old. Brunner, who is 64, would narrowly qualify to run for reelection to her justice seat in 2026 and thus serve through 2032.

Being elected to a new term as chief justice in 2022, however, would prohibit her from embarking on a reelection campaign in 2028.

Pictured is the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center where the Ohio Supreme Court meets. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One other dynamic that may impact future Ohio Supreme Court races is the matter of ballot party affiliation.

Under the current system, judicial candidates campaign as Democrats or Republicans during the primary season to earn their party’s nomination to the General Election in November.

On that General Election ballot, though, the candidates are listed without party affiliation.

That could change starting in 2022. There is pending legislation to add political party designations to the November ballot. Senate Bill 80 has already passed the Ohio Senate and awaits consideration by the Ohio House of Representatives.

Brunner was asked for her opinion about this proposed change. 

“Frankly, my opinion is, just tell me the rules and I’ll run,” she answered. “It’s fine. (Lawmakers) can do what they want.”



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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.