The four candidates competing for a Summit County Common Pleas Court seat in the May 8 primary together have more than 100 years of legal experience.

The candidates in the rare double primary, however, have similarities and differences in their backgrounds.

Jay Wells, who was appointed to the seat last June, served in the Army for 28 years, including working as a judge advocate general, before moving into private practice. Dave Lombardi, his opponent in the Republican primary, was a judge for a year in Akron Municipal Court and has nearly 30 years of private practice. As defense attorneys, both represented clients in serious criminal cases.

On the Democratic side, Rob McCarty and Kelly McLaughlin are both chief magistrates with three decades of law under their belts. McCarty works in Summit County Juvenile Court, while McLaughlin serves in Domestic Relations Court. Each also has private practice experience. McCarty has more time on the bench — albeit as a magistrate — than the other three candidates combined.

Summit County voters must decide which of these candidates has the most impressive resume — and the best shot at prevailing in the November election against the primary victor from the other party. The candidate who wins the spot will fulfill an unexpired term for two years, which means he or she must run again to keep the seat in 2020.

The matchups are unusual because judge races seldom have primaries — and even less often do both parties have primaries for the same spot. This is the only Summit County judge race this year with primaries.

“Why this race got all the attention, I don’t know,” Lombardi said. “It’s been a long time since we had a double contested primary.”

The candidates, though, agree the large field of candidates is a win for voters.

“I think it’s going to help the voters have the best possible choice,” McLaughlin said.

The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com talked to the candidates about their experience, plans if they’re elected and challenges they see in the court system.

Lombardi v. Wells

If Wells is elected, he’d like to explore the possibility of starting a mental health court, similar to specialty programs geared toward people with mental illness in Akron Municipal Court and Summit County Probate Court.

“It’s something I recognize from my practice,” he said. “A lot of these people find themselves in the justice system because their brain short-circuits. They need counseling, treatment. They honestly can’t help themselves.”

Lombardi said he has joked about all of the specialty programs currently in Common Pleas Court and suggested that he should start an “emoji court.’”

“It seems more and more courts are being created for political grandstanding and for labels to use when running,” he said.

Lombardi, however, said there is value in many of the specialty programs, including drug court and Valor Court, which is geared toward veterans.

Wells sees a major challenge in the criminal justice system for people with a felony at age 18 that mars their record and means they have trouble getting a job.

“I think there’s a sense of hopelessness,” he said.

Wells said he thinks judges should continue to work with the Probation Department to treat the “defendants as human beings and help them get the help they need.”

Lombardi also is a fan of treatment, particularly for people with drug problems. He said these addiction issues lead to other crimes like burglaries, carjackings, shootings and even murder.

“There are more and more cases and the population isn’t going up,” he said. “That’s a sign that you have desperate people turning to drugs to solve their problems.”

Lombardi said that the Summit County judges’ dockets have gotten so large that it might be time to think about appealing to the state to add another judge. The court currently has 12 judges.

McCarty v. McLaughlin

McCarty has an idea for a program focused on helping younger defendants — those younger than 23 — get extra help to get onto the right track.

“For those folks — young adults — putting them into prison is knee-jerk,” McCarty said. “It will certainly harden them.”

He said he’d like to look into starting a specialized docket for this purpose, though he acknowledged that this process takes time and might not be accomplished in the two years left in the unexpired term for this seat.

McLaughlin said she also has an idea for a new program, but hasn’t yet fully vetted it.

“I’d want to see once I got into office what the need was in court,” she said. “I’d be open to working on specialty court programs.”

Both McLaughlin and McCarty see the opiate crisis as a major challenge for the justice system. McLaughlin said there could be a need for a third drug court judge in addition to the second docket that was recently added.

“The court system has got to be reactive to the conditions in society,” she said.

McCarty has seen firsthand the impact of opiates in the juvenile court system, with parents of children on his docket regularly dying of overdoses. He said his knowledge of the problem would be an asset in addressing cases involving drugs in common pleas court.

“That’s society’s scourge right now — and it needs to be dealt with,” he said.

Depending on how the election goes, McCarty could potentially end up in the same court with two of his relatives. Judge Alison McCarty is his sister-in-law and Tom McCarty, Alison’s husband and his brother, is running for another common pleas seat. Rob McCarty, who is in the opposite party as his brother and sister-in-law, sees this potential outcome as a positive, though he admits the family sometimes gets into heated debates during Thanksgiving dinners.

“I would be able to work with all judges — and judges who are family — even though we are political opposites,” he said.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.