To see how raw, partisan politics can intrude into judicial elections, look no further than this year’s race for Stow Municipal Court judge.
In a feud that goes back to 1995, Summit County GOP Chairman Alex Arshinkoff is aiming at incumbent Kim Hoover, a Republican who is running for his fourth term.
Arshinkoff is taking advantage of a change in state law made in 2008 requiring Stow and other smaller municipal court systems to hold partisan primaries, instead of candidates filing to run in November on a nonpartisan ballot.
The change was a terrible erosion of the independence of Ohio’s judiciary, but party bosses wanted it, the leverage of a partisan primary keeping judges in line and the bosses’ buddies on the court payroll.
Arshinkoff hoped to unseat Hoover in the May 7 primary by running Kandi O’Connor, a judicial attorney and magistrate for Summit County Common Pleas Court Judge Amy Corrigall Jones. With a solid ballot name and party support, she would be a formidable challenger in a low-turnout primary.
But Hoover didn’t file to run in the Republican primary. Instead, relying on a unanimous Ohio Supreme Court decision in 2007, he filed as a nonpartisan candidate. The deadline isn’t until May 6, the day before the primary elections, but Hoover didn’t want to create the impression he wasn’t running.
Despite threats by Arshinkoff, Hoover’s candidacy has not been challenged, although the Board of Elections is expected to take up the matter after the May 6 filing deadline. Board member Arshinkoff, usually master of arcane elections laws, first jumped on Hoover for running as an independent, which would have been trouble because he has remained active in the Republican Party.
Could Arshinkoff turn a unanimous Ohio Supreme Court case on its head? It appears unlikely, even with his ties to Jon Husted, Ohio secretary of state, and Maureen O’Connor, Arshinkoff’s protege and now chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.
An ironic twist to the Arshinkoff-Hoover feud is that Hoover got his start as a municipal court judge, and Maureen O’Connor advanced from common pleas judget to Summit County prosecutor, because Hoover resisted Arshinkoff’s arm-twisting. Hoover was up for a party appointment as Summit County prosecutor in 1995, after Lynn Slaby left the office for the court of appeals.
But the transition turned messy, Arshinkoff wanting Hoover to fire Fred Zuch, the well-respected chief criminal prosecutor, over his handling of high-profile cases that had angered big donors. Hoover refused, and Arshinkoff turned to O’Connor (who kept Zuch, anyway).
Hoover, then president of the Cuyahoga Falls City Council, ran for municipal court judge, beginning his career on the bench. He has since run what he calls a “bipartisan” court, steering an independent course, becoming a thorn in Arshinkoff’s side.
Arshinkoff tried to oust Hoover six years ago, but failed to recruit a candidate.
His stated reason for taking Hoover out this year goes back to the mayor’s race in Cuyahoga Falls in 1997, when Hoover’s wife co-chaired Democrat Wayne Jones’ campaign committee. Jones failed to oust the Republican incumbent, Don Robart, a close Arshinkoff ally. Kim Hoover never contributed or publicly endorsed Jones.
The more likely reason is Hoover’s participation in a failed attempt to oust Arshinkoff as chairman.
Whatever the reason, it has nothing to do with Hoover’s qualifications or experience as a judge. In other words, it’s a purely political fight, the issues behind it having no connection with the administration or quality of justice in Stow and surrounding communities served by the court.
The irony is, Chief Justice O’Connor has become an advocate for nonpartisan judicial primaries, the top two vote-getters advancing to the November ballot. That would end Ohio’s unwanted distinction of being the only state in the nation where judges run in partisan primaries, then nonpartisan general elections.
O’Connor’s plan would provide some protection from partisan politics for the judicial branch, although not as much as merit selection. Under that widely used system, a commission selects qualified candidates, the governor making the final choice, judges then standing for a retention election. Hoover’s re-election battle shows the state has a long way to go.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.