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  • Jessica Dickinson

Judge the Candidates for Municipal Court

What do parking tickets, small claims, and landlord-tenant disputes have in common? They are all adjudicated in municipal courts. Why should we care about these courts? Because they are small courts with a big impact. On Election Day, November 7, 2023, voters in most Ohio counties will elect municipal court judges. Unfortunately, information about the role of courts, judges, and judicial elections can be difficult to find. It’s important for voters to research their judicial candidates prior to each election and yet, this too can be challenging.

We have the power to shape our courts! Voters need to know whether a candidate for judge will be fair, impartial, and independent. Here, we break down the role of municipal courts, how judicial elections work in Ohio, and where to find that elusive information about the candidates running for a seat on the court so you can make a more informed decision when casting your vote.


Municipal courts conduct preliminary hearings in felony cases and handle traffic, non-traffic misdemeanors, and evictions. These courts sometimes hear small civil claims in disputes of less than $15,000. Judges of municipal courts can also conduct marriage ceremonies.


In addition, some municipal courts have specialized dockets and programs. These specialized dockets are intended to address problems that the community is facing in a thoughtful way. The Cleveland Municipal Court has a veterans treatment docket. The Akron Municipal Court provides mediation and online dispute resolution programs for small claims and eviction cases with the purpose “to encourage open discussion and resolution of conflicts without court intervention, while avoiding extra costs and time a court hearing can cause.”


Voters elected these judges and these municipal court judges appoint magistrates who conduct proceedings just as a judge would; they issue orders and decisions, and preside over small claims, civil, traffic and minor criminal matters.


Regardless of what level of court they serve, judges are called upon to consider the specific facts of the cases and rule without regard for partisan affiliation.


Candidate Qualifications & Judicial Elections

Candidates cannot serve on Ohio Courts unless they have been a licensed attorney with at least six years of experience practicing law in Ohio.


All Ohio judges serve six-year terms. The terms for judicial seats are staggered, so judges are not all elected at the same time and not all counties have judicial elections each year. In Ohio, some ballots show a candidate's partisan affiliation, while others do not. Primary elections for Municipal Courts are partisan but general elections are not.


Ways to Evaluate Judicial Candidates

Ohioans struggle to find information about judicial candidates. Some of this is because judges can’t make promises about how they are going to rule. They should be impartial and look at every case based on the law. Unfortunately, the limitations on judicial campaign communications can make it difficult for voters. Some judges circumvent accountability by avoiding community discussions, refusing to provide information for voter guides, or opting out of forums. Below are some helpful ways to find the information you need.


Candidate Questionnaires

Bar associations, newspapers, and websites that provide judicial election information often ask judicial candidates to fill out questionnaires. Candidates have the opportunity to tell voters about things like their education, endorsements, affiliations, and work experience.


For example, the Cincinnati Bar Association sends a confidential, nonpartisan Judicial Survey of the candidates for election to all active attorney members. Members respond only to questions about candidates with whom they have had contact in the past four years, rating candidates on six categories. See the 2023 survey results for the eight Hamilton County Municipal Court candidates here.


For a variety of reasons, candidates do not always respond to questionnaires. We encourage you to take action and write to candidates about sharing their information because that can give voters a sense of who the judge is and why they’re running for office. Email addresses for candidates are available on their websites. The more information, the better!


Bar Association Ratings

Bar association ratings are another tool voters can use to evaluate judges running for the court. Judge4Yourself is made up of six cooperating bar associations and provides ratings, interviews with the candidates, and reviews the candidates’ answers to the questionnaire. These ratings can be used to gauge prospective judges’ ability to perform their job. Their candidate ratings for Berea, Garfield Heights, Rocky River, and Cleveland Municipal Courts can be found here.


Other bar associations also rate judicial candidates. The Akron Bar Association Commission on Judicial Candidates rates candidates “Excellent,” “Good,” “Adequate,” or “Not Acceptable.” Ratings are based on seven criteria: integrity, legal knowledge and ability, professional experience, judicial temperament, diligence, personal responsibility, and public and community service. Their ratings for Summit County municipal court candidates can be found here.


Endorsements

An endorsement by an individual or group can be another way to evaluate judicial candidates. Many times, candidates will display their endorsements on their campaign websites and local newspapers also endorse candidates. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently endorsed two judicial candidates, one for Cleveland Municipal Court and one for Rocky River Municipal Court.


Judicial Forums & Debates

Judicial forums are another way for voters to evaluate judicial candidates. While judicial candidates can’t tell you how they plan to rule, you can get to know them better at candidate forums.


Here are some questions that the candidates are free to answer:

  • Why do you want to be a judge?

  • What work or other experience have you had that particularly qualifies you to perform the duties of a judge?

  • What do you consider your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?

  • What do you perceive as the greatest obstacle to justice?

  • To what extent do you believe that a judge should or should not defer to actions of a legislature?

  • How do you believe that we can assure that judges are independent of special interests?

  • When should a judge recuse themselves or step away from a case?

Who’s Contributed to Their Campaigns

A candidate’s campaign contributors may also help determine which judge gets your vote because in Ohio, judges are allowed to hear cases from their contributors and are not required to recuse themselves. As such, the potential negative effects of campaign finance on judicial impartiality and independence should be of great public concern. For information on candidate campaign contributions, visit the Ohio Secretary of State.


Additional Resources for Voting in Municipal Court Elections

  • Judicial Votes Count: administered by the Ohio State Bar Association. It provides a voter guide where Ohio voters can read what judicial candidates say about themselves.

  • Judge4Yourself: made up of six cooperating bar associations and provides ratings, interviews with the candidates, and reviews the candidates’ answers to the questionnaire.

  • BallotReady: no need to guess what’s on your ballot, this site has it covered including judicial elections.

  • Vote 411: from the League of Women Voters is a “one-stop-shop" for election related information.

Note: You can get prepared to vote in advance by looking at sample ballots that are available at your local board of elections websites. Here is an example of a 2023 sample ballot.


Key Voting Information

Make sure you have a plan to vote and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. Use voteohio.gov to check your registration status, request an absentee ballot, or track your ballot. If you plan to vote in person, you must have an unexpired photo ID.

  • Oct. 11: Early voting starts at your county board of elections

  • Oct. 31: Deadline to request an absentee ballot

  • Nov. 7: Election Day. Polls open 6:30 am - 7:30 pm

Be an educated voter and research judicial candidates so that you can make an informed decision when you cast your ballot. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors about the importance of voting for judges and share this information with them.

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