Knowing High Court Hopefuls

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy has some excellent advice for Buckeye State voters: Learn about judicial candidates and their philosophies on the state constitution. Kennedy, who is up for reelection next year, made the comments during a presentation last week in St. Clairsville.

As Kennedy noted, judicial elections in Ohio are nonpartisan contests. That is, ballots do not specify whether candidates are Republicans, Democrats or adherents to some other party.

Nonpartisan judicial elections, at which West Virginia remains relatively new, are the way to go for a variety of reasons. One, of course, is that winners have no ideological obligations to parties.

That is not to say judges and justices do not have their own philosophies concerning the limits and obligations of government. They do.

Nonpartisan elections can be a bit unsettling for some voters, as Kennedy discussed. “A lot of people, as they all of a sudden are working down the ballot, they get used to seeing the Rs and Ds beside the name,” she remarked. “All of a sudden, they get to judicial candidates and it’s gone.”

Too many voters seem to use party labels as crutches to avoid having to learn about candidates. Staunch Democrats tend to vote for Democratic candidates. Convinced Republicans are likely to vote for Republicans. Some voters tend to fall back on their own knowledge of whether candidates are Republicans or Democrats.

Especially in judicial contests, that may not be prudent. As several presidents have learned, people they nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court did not always vote as expected.

In most states, the vast majority of high court rulings are either unanimous or nearly so. But on tricky questions of legality, justices tend to interpret state constitutions as they believe the framers intended — not necessarily as the justice would prefer.

So Kennedy is absolutely right: The best way to decide on a judicial candidate is to learn as much as possible about her or him. Even that may not be a reliable predictor of votes on the high court, but it is far safer than attempting to learn whether the candidate is a Republican or a Democrat.

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