On Sunday, I wrote about the “name game” seemingly at work in the surprising results of two races for the Ohio Supreme Court. The outcomes have triggered conversations in the legal community and beyond about exploring, again, a system of merit selection for justices. Two-thirds of states already have taken the step. In doing so, they have removed the taint of campaign money and improved the odds of a choice driven by qualifications.
There is an epilogue to the story, a case for applying merit selection to state appellate judges, too.
Consider the fate of Clair Dickinson, defeated in his bid for re-election to a seat on the Ninth District Ohio Court of Appeals. Actually, this was the second time Dickinson fell short in seeking a consecutive term. He won a spot on the appeals bench in 1992, and lost six years later. In 2006, he returned to the fray and prevailed at the ballot.
What many court watchers came to recognize is the sure fit Dickinson proved for appellate work, thoughtful and prepared, precise and most alert to the consequences, or how rulings resonate later, when the next relevant case surfaces. He gained the respect of both sides in an argument. In a world of merit selection, it hardly is a stretch to think that Dickinson would make many lists for an appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court.
His recent defeat didn’t come entirely by surprise, that earlier loss echoing. Still, many scratched their heads about what can seem more a roll of the dice.
What happened to leave him 10,000 or so votes short in a district that covers Summit, Lorain, Medina and Wayne counties? His opponent, Jennifer Hensal, has a strong base in Medina, where she practices law and represents, among others, local governments. She may have added name recognition running for Akron mayor a year ago, a set-up for her judicial bid. Her father served as a judge in Wadsworth, her mother as a local fiscal officer.
You have to smile, or cringe, when looking a bit more closely at the Dickinson races, weighing the possibility of yet another iteration of the name thing. Speculation long has been that Dickinson benefits from his name, Clair worn by both men and women. Is there something to his victories coming over men, and his defeats to women, Beth Whitmore in 1998 and now Hensal?
A silly thought? Until you note that the Ninth District will be populated by five women?
Women have had a hard enough time with various ceilings, and still do. The suggestion here isn’t that they have some unfair advantage. Rather, the episode reinforces concerns about the flawed process of electing justices and appellate judges, the races often opaque, voters rarely in a good position to know which candidate is the more qualified.
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor