Justice Jennifer Brunner (L) and Justice Sharon Kennedy (R) are both running for Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. Official photos. Graphic by WEWS.
The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.
The Ohio Supreme Court sprung into the national spotlight during the now-going-on-one-year redistricting battle. But the court is much more than just that.
The court has been Republican-controlled for decades, but that could change this November. Three seats are open. These races are critical, but often under-researched by voters.
OCJ/WEWS is running a series on the Ohio Supreme Court candidates. This is the first edition, focusing on the chief justice position.
Justices are supposed to be elected as nonpartisan candidates, but for the first time, the candidates’ party affiliations will be listed on the ballot.
Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner has been sitting on the high court since 2020. Previously, she was the Ohio Secretary of State and a judge on both the Tenth District Court of Appeals and the Franklin County Common Pleas Court. She has nearly 20 years of private law practice experience.
Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy first joined the Supreme Court in 2012. She had been a judge for the Butler County Court of Common Pleas. Before that, she had worked in private practice and was special counsel for Attorney General Betty Montgomery. Originally, she worked as a police officer at Hamilton Police Department.
For clarity, OCJ/WEWS is using alphabetical order when sharing the candidate’s responses to the questions.
Brunner’s philosophy is simple — do a good job and focus on being a public servant.
“We work to make the law work for everyone and we do it to the best of our understanding and our ability,” she said. “If judges take a public service attitude, then every morning they have to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Did I do right by people today? Did I do right by the law? Did I do right by my promises?’ And they don’t have to try to pigeonhole themselves into I’m this or I’m that.”
For Kennedy, she is more interested in judicial restraint, which typically refers to keeping precedent and following textualism. Textualism is a theory of looking at the ordinary language of the legal text instead of trying to look for the intent of why the bill was proposed, according to Congress.
“If it’s unambiguous as you read it, applying the common language and it makes perfect sense, then you just simply apply it to the facts,” she said.
A case or a project in your career that you are proud of
Justices can like outcomes, but that is not how they are supposed to focus on with the law, Brunner said. However, a program that the justice put into place nearly 20 years ago is a highlight.
She started the Franklin County TIES (Treatment is Essential to Success) program, which is meant to lessen the impact of substance abuse use on the level of crime in Franklin County, she said. This program focuses on rehabilitating individuals.
“I was really gratified to know that the efforts that I put in and so many other people put in back then are still blossoming and creating good in people’s lives today,” the Democrat said. “That’s really what public service is all about.”
Kennedy is proud of her dissents that have later become majority opinion, the Republican said. Her favorite was State ex rel. Twitchell v. Saferin.
“What is so exciting about that moment is that you were able to settle the Ohio Constitution and take it to where it had been in 1927 when it was first passed upon,” she said.
Constitution as a living document
The constitution is stable, but for Brunner, it is a living document in a sense of the phrase.
“The Ohio Constitution is amended a lot more frequently by votes of Ohio voters, but it’s a living document in that it still works for us today, but it’s not something that should change at a whim,” she said.
There are times when courts need to overrule a previous decision, but “politics has no place in our courts, that shakes the confidence of people in our rule of law,” Brunner added.
The constitution is absolutely not a living document for Kennedy, but there are caveats.
“I believe the Constitution is an enduring document for all of time,” the Republican said. “I didn’t need to change the Constitution in order for a new media to apply.”
Redistricting and what they would have changed or hoped was different
The two justices were on opposite sides of the redistricting debate. With Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor joining the Democrats in a 4-3 majority, they rejected multiple legislative and congressional maps for being “gerrymandered.”
The GOP-controlled Ohio Redistricting Commission (ORC) ignored the majority of the court, and although there were threats, no lawmakers were held in contempt. Eventually, a federal court got involved and told the ORC they had until a specific date to come up with a new map or they would just implement an already-rejected map.
“If I could express I hope for something that was in the past, it would be that the redistricting commission would have followed our orders,” Brunner said.
Her wish was that the ORC actually followed the court’s orders and that the federal court that took over was more tactful when handling the ORC.
“I’ve been a mother of teenagers, and if I told my teenagers they had to have the room clean by 5:00, and if I told them that if you only have it halfway done by four, you’ll still be okay — I don’t think that would be clean by 5:00,” the Democrat said. “That’s just human logic.”
Kennedy took a different approach to the question. She suggested if people were unhappy with the results, they should think about solutions. Also, they should ask themselves if this version is better or worse than the prior anti-gerrymandering redistricting resolution that was put into place before this election.
“I don’t know that I can change that process,” the Republican said. “I stand ready to answer the next legal question and the next case of redistricting and give Ohioans my fair and honest view of what I say the Ohio Constitution says.”
Why should voters choose them
She has always been a leader, and is the only candidate across each Supreme Court race who has experience managing a statewide office, Brunner said, referencing herself. While secretary, she focused on initiatives to make sure there were no voters disenfranchised and everyone was able to vote. She also has been awarded numerous honors, such as the bipartisan John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. She also focuses on combatting opioids, educating voters on the law and anti-corruption work.
The chief justice is the superintendent of all the courts of the state, she said, so her experience managing the 88 separate counties as the secretary allows her to understand the importance of leaving the autonomy to people at the local levels, but also providing guidance and resources that they need to do their jobs, she said. With this, she also had to manage the budget during the 2008 market crash.
Brunner supports bail reform for greater equality for Ohioans, bodily autonomy, greater access to justice through technology initiatives to keep people safe and make remote participation easier, joining initiatives to identify systemic racism in the criminal justice system through the creation of data on sentencing across the state, LGBTQ+ equality, and making the state a safer, more inclusive and more equitable place for marginalized individuals.
“I’m first and foremost a public servant,” Brunner said. “I work to make sure that as I envision a law unfolding in the future, that it’s not going to be something that hurts people.”
For Kennedy, her nearly four decades working in the justice system show she has complex problem-solving skills and has constantly been working collaboratively with other agencies and individuals to better the community, she said.
While working in law, she helped juvenile court create programs to stop recidivism, partnered with family services to help break down obstacles to employment and having a meaningful wage, and worked on the budget during the economic downturn. She also presided over domestic violence cases while working at the Butler County Domestic Relations Court.
She also believes in youth mentoring programs and helping those formerly incarcerated adjust to life outside bars — mentioning Cleveland and Cuyahoga County specifically.
Kennedy was less upfront about the issues she supports. However, she has previously sided against abortion providers in cases. She has ties to gun lobbying groups, bail bondsman associations and Ohio Right to Life.
“[Becoming chief justice] would truly enable me to help solve some of the problems that we’re all seeing in our communities and make lives better,” the Republican said. “I would hope that your viewers actually take away from seeing a person who has devoted their life to service.”
The winner of the 2020 presidential election
Immediately, Brunner responded that Joe Biden is the president of the United States.
Kennedy took a different approach.
“I am not by law permitted to pass upon or give an opinion on something that’s pending in another court, so I am going to tread very lightly here as new cases were just filed in Michigan,” the Republican said.
She then went on to discuss how she believed Ohio’s elections were completely fair, noting she won her election by 10 points and discussing other aspects of Ohio in 2020.
After doing so, she said Joe Biden is the president.
Want to learn the latest on where the candidates stand? OCJ/WEWS is here to help. We created a 2022 midterm elections guide, which is updated daily based on the changing candidacies.
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