Judge Terri Jamison, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner and Judge Marilyn Zayas speak at a forum held by the Amos Project. Screenshot via Facebook.
Democratic candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court spoke on racism in Ohio’s court system, the future of redistricting in the state, and how a constitutional amendment on bail could impact the courts in a recent forum with religious leaders.
Justice Jennifer Brunner, candidate for chief justice, attended the forum along with 10th District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison and First District Court of Appeals Judge Marilyn Zayas, both of whom are running for seats on the state’s highest court.
Jamison is running against incumbent justice Patrick Fischer and Zayas is challenging to take over Justice Patrick DeWine’s spot.
Fischer, DeWine, and Brunner’s opponent, Justice Sharon Kennedy, were all invited to the forum as well, but were not in attendance.
The “faith and freedom” forum was held by The Amos Project, a group of religious congregations based in Cincinnati.
Among the topics discussed, racial disparity and the role of the courts to unite against judicial bias came up, and all three judges said those within Ohio’s system of justice have an obligation to address it.
Brunner and Zayas both pointed to a commission on racial fairness that was tasked by the supreme court in the late 1990s to look into race’s impact on the court systems. That commission identified systemic racism and recommended ways the criminal justice system could address it.
“So, we can call it disparity, but for them to say there is systemic racism, that’s actually more malevolent, in my view,” Brunner said.
The chief justice candidate and former Ohio Secretary of State said attorneys and judges alike need to educate themselves and root out the problems in criminal justice.
Brunner even offered the idea that continuing judicial education courses could include the 1619 Project, a New York Times product on the impact of race on history that’s often been cited in battles for and against so-called critical race theory in schools.
“The more that especially judges can understand and do this kind of self-examination, the better they can be at making sure that they’re eliminating such problems,” Brunner said.
Jamison said her drive to become a judge came from being the only person of color in some courtrooms, and having grown up with segregation, she knows the power discrimination can have.
“I understand how discrimination impacts, causes additional trauma, causes the feeling that when you’re in the courtroom that you’re not being heard, that you’re not being treated fairly,” Jamison said.
As a Latina who was born in Spanish Harlem, Zayas said she saw law as “the great equalizer” in her life, when equality wasn’t always a given.
“I grew up in a way that I didn’t feel like I had a voice, and all I wanted was a fair chance,” she said.
Part of having a fair chance is having one’s vote matter, Zayas said, which is hard with redistricting maps that remain unconstitutional in the state.
“When the districts are drawn in an unconstitutional manner, then the individuals there don’t have a meaningful opportunity and they just don’t have choice,” Zayas said.
She also criticized Justice DeWine for declining to recuse himself when redistricting cases came to the Ohio Supreme Court, despite his father, Gov. Mike DeWine, being a member of the Ohio Redistricting Commission who adopted the maps.
“Justices are the ones that are holding the rule of law for everyone in the state of Ohio, and we also have the responsibility to hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law,” Zayas said.
Patrick DeWine recused himself when the court debated holding ORC members in contempt for not following court orders — the court has not brought any contempt charges — but he did not recuse himself from general redistricting cases.
As a member of the supreme court who rejected congressional and legislative maps at every turn, Brunner said the contempt topic comes up frequently as she talks to Ohioans.
“People ask me routinely why were not the parties held in contempt,” Brunner said. “And my only response to that is that on the supreme court of Ohio with seven justices, it takes four votes.”
While the court still holds jurisdiction over the redistricting cases, a federal court intervened for the 2022 election season, ruling that a legislative map adopted by the ORC in February could go forward as the district map for the November 8 general election. That map was found unconstitutional by Brunner as a member of the majority ruling, which also found the congressional map that will be used in the 2022 election unconstitutional.
The congressional map decision will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by GOP state leaders.
Beyond higher court battles, the future of redistricting is still up to the commission, Brunner said.
“The Ohio Supreme Court does not start the process, and it will be up to the redistricting commission to start the process, to begin anew,” the justice said. “And if it fails to do so, it may be up to outside parties to seek the assistance of the court for that to begin.”
In changing the process, Jamison said a phrase that is used in every election continues to ring true, especially with redistricting coming back on the table for the 2024 election cycle.
“This is the most critical election that you will have,” Jamison said.
With people up for reelection on both the Ohio Redistricting Commission and the Ohio Supreme Court, Jamison said “the majority does matter in both places.”
Issues are also on the ballot this November, including Issue 1, a General-Assembly-proposed constitutional amendment that would require Ohio courts to consider public safety and criminal records when determining bail for those accused of crimes.
All three judges were in agreement that cash bail should be decided by the court systems, and not as a legislative matter.
“If you vote yes for Issue 1, you’re saying you want the legislature to decide it,” Brunner said. “If you vote no on Issue 1, you’re saying leave things the way they are, the (state) supreme court has it under control.”
Brunner and Jamison said the regulations included in the constitutional amendment could create a “debtor’s prison,” among other issues it could establish in law.
“It creates problems by holding one in jail until their trial or until the conclusion of their case,” Jamison said. “Causes them to lose their jobs, lose their housing, have their clothing and furniture set out on the curb while they’re locked up.”
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