Former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin has won his fight to run as a nonpartisan candidate for Stow Municipal Court Clerk.
The Ohio Supreme Court released a unanimous and strongly worded decision Monday afternoon, ordering the Summit County Board of Elections to grant Coughlin ballot access in November.
“The Summit County Board of Elections disregarded clearly established law when it concluded that Coughlin had to disaffiliate or else seek nomination through a partisan primary and that therefore his nominating petition was untimely,” the justices wrote in the nine-page decision. “For this reason, Coughlin has a clear legal right to have his name on the ballot, [and] the board has a clear legal duty to place his name on the ballot.”
The board had voted to disqualify Coughlin from running, saying he couldn’t run nonpartisan because of his past affiliations with the Republican Party.
Coughlin filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court as an expedited election matter, saying he should be permitted to run nonpartisan, just as Stow Municipal Judge Kim Hoover is allowed to do, in the Nov. 5 election.
The elections board had said judicial and clerk candidates shouldn’t be treated in the same way.
The Supreme Court didn’t buy that argument. It said that in most jurisdictions, including Stow, municipal court clerks must be nominated and elected in the same way as municipal court judges. The court said clerks may be nominated either by petition or by a primary election.
The court made a distinction between nonpartisan and independent candidates, saying that nonpartisan candidates don’t need to disaffiliate themselves from their political parties, while independent candidates do.
Tim Gorbach, the Democratic chairman of the Summit County elections board, said the board will put Coughlin on the ballot, as ordered, at its next meeting or at a special meeting if deadlines for ballot printing require it.
Gorbach said the court’s decision has implications beyond the Coughlin case, opening the way for candidates across the state to run nonpartisan for clerk seats. He pointed out that the court didn’t address some of the issues the board raised about the distinctions between judges and clerks, such as how judges may not be involved in partisan activities while clerks can.
“We thought there were other issues surrounding this,” Gorbach said. “They didn’t see it that way. I don’t know if the legislature will take a look at this.”
John Galonski, deputy chief prosecutor for the Civil Division of the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office, which represents the board, said in a one-sentence, emailed statement, “We respect the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision.”
The board hired former Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner as a consultant to help with the case.
Coughlin and his attorney, Don Varian, were ecstatic about the ruling.
“I’m obviously grateful to the Supreme Court for upholding my right to run,” Coughlin said in a telephone interview. “The result of this is that people here will have the opportunity to elect a nonpartisan office holder and have a shot at keeping politics out of the courthouse. The party bosses in Summit County have shown they will stop at nothing to keep me from running.”
Varian said he was glad the justices were clear in their message, which was, “You can’t do this, board of elections.”
Coughlin will face Diana Colavecchio, a Democrat and former Cuyahoga Falls council member appointed to the clerk’s seat, and Munroe Falls Mayor Frank Larson, a Republican, in the November election.
Coughlin, who has said his battle with the board has helped his name recognition, said he hasn’t slowed down his campaign and was out knocking on doors over the weekend.
“Round 1 down, and now we move on,” he said.