A look into the Ohio Supreme Court

Professor Emeritus Carro helps explain how the Ohio legal system works.
Professor Emeritus Carro helps explain how the Ohio legal system works

The Ohio Supreme Court currently operates in Columbus, Ohio. Frequently hearing new cases, the court is integral in the Ohio court system, yet many Ohioans don’t even know what it does. Founded in 1802, the Ohio Supreme Court is the highest legal system in the state and topped only by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Any cases that get to the Ohio Supreme Court they go through what you might imagine as a pyramid,” Akron University Professor Emeritus J. Dean Carro explained. “At the base are the trial courts, the middle are the court of appeals and at the pinnacle is the Supreme Court of Ohio.”

The court is made up of one chief justice and six justices chosen by the citizens of Ohio who serve for six years per term. The court has two seats up for election every two years. Judges can also be appointed to their position by the governor of Ohio. These judges hear appeal cases from around the state as well as death penalty cases. The majority of the court’s cases involve reviewing the merits of a court of appeals case also known as a memorandum in support of jurisdiction. The court does not make laws, but their decisions still impact the state.

The makeup of the court is important in helping determine the outcomes of cases. While all Ohio Supreme Court judges must pass the bar exam and have 6 years prior experience as a judge, there is no requirement on political party or gender which can impact a judge’s decision on a case.

“You have seven justices in the Ohio Supreme Court. You always have to have an odd number to break ties,” Carro said. “Trying to get seven people to agree on something pretty tough, so generally to get some agreement there usually needs to be some objective rational that everybody can agree with.”

As seen recently in the U.S. Supreme Court, electing a majority of one party can impact the rulings of the court. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Ohio justices do not serve for life and are unable to run for reelection after the age of 70. This results in new judges being brought in regularly. After the 2020 election, the Ohio Supreme Court is made up of 3 Democrats and 4 Republicans. The election of another Democrat to the court brings more diversity into the court and their decision making.

Jennifer Brunner

Jennifer Brunner, an appellate judge in the Court of Appeals in Franklin County.
Jennifer Brunner, an appellate judge in the Court of Appeals in Franklin County. (Courtesy of Jennifer Brunner).

In the election earlier this month, Democrat Jennifer Brunner, an appellate judge in the Court of Appeals in Franklin County, defeated incumbent justice Republican Judi French for one of the two seats open this election by a 55.2% to 44.8% margin, according to Ballotpedia’s official election results.

Brunner mainly decided to run for the office of Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court for three reasons: ensuring fair decision making regarding redistricting for Congress and the Ohio General Assembly, establishing a focus on important issues that affect everyday people in Ohio and providing a political balance to the Ohio Supreme Court, Brunner said.

Brunner’s election, and Republican Sharon Kennedy’s re-election, to the Ohio Supreme Court shifts the Republican 5-2 majority to a slimmer 4-3 majority, creating a more politically balanced makeup of the Ohio Supreme Court bench.

“I’m on an eight judge court currently and I’ve experienced that when we are 4-4, there’s more give and take between the judges to get to a resolution of the case,” Brunner said. “When you have to experience someone else’s perspective and views, it makes for a better decision when more can be taken into account.”

Other issues of interest to Brunner include eliminating systematic racism in Ohio’s criminal justice system and the jurisdiction and range of cases the Ohio Supreme Court decide to take on, according to the “Meet Judge Jennifer Brunner” document on her campaign website.

Brunner started her current position as one of eight state appeals court judges in Franklin County in 2014. Previously, she served in the elective office as a Common Pleas Judge, from 2000-2005, during which she started the drug court, and in the Ohio Secretary of State, from 2007 to 2011, Brunner said.

Brunner’s current and previous positions in the state legislature have provided her with invaluable insight and experience that will aid her as she steps into this new position as an Ohio Supreme Court justice, Brunner said.

“Having run a state agency is a great thing to know, especially when you’re considering separation of powers and the judiciary and understanding what the executive does,” Brunner said. “The appellate work that I do now actually has helped me understand the nuances in the difference between being a trial court judge and rendering those decisions, and being an appeals court judge and understanding what your limitations are.”

Additionally, Brunner has done international work, assisting foreign governments with rule of law and self-governance matters through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Brunner has also been on the advisory board of the Legacy Fund in the Columbus Foundation as an ally since 2017, Brunner said. 

Although Brunner will have to step down from many of her current positions once she is in office, starting Jan. 1, 2021, she plans to take on roles in her areas of interest that the courts are involved in, Brunner said.

“Obviously, I’m going in new to this court, so I’m open to wherever I can be of service,” Brunner said. “But, [the Chief Justice and I] were talking about some access to justice kind of activities, specifically for people in need of legal help,” including being a liaison to the Ohio Legal Rights Service (OLRS) organization from the court. 

Access to justice is an area of great interest to Brunner, believing that if you want people to trust the system, you have to give them their day in court and make them feel heard, even if it doesn’t go their way, Brunner said. 

“If people feel like it’s been fair, then they’re more likely to believe that the system is good,” Brunner said. “When we’re in public service, our job is to do a good job for the public. Government has been so maligned for so long, but government really can be a force for good and hopefully, we’re gonna see that in maybe a new approach to the pandemic.”

Sharon Kennedy

Sharon L. Kennedy is a Republican judge of the Ohio Supreme Court, she ran for re-election for judge and won in the general election. Kennedy is the 154th justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and the 9th woman to serve on the court.

Kennedy explained that her 34 years of service in the justice system to her judicial from juvenile is just one of the three reasons she’s qualified for her position.

Sharon Kennedy a Republican judge of the Ohio Supreme Court

Kennedy started her career as a police officer in the city of Hamilton. She was a uniformed officer as she worked rotating shifts. After that, Kennedy put herself in law school, clerks and the trial court about the county at the general division, where judges would have heard a wide variety of criminal and civil cases. She practiced law for eight years and did criminal defense work, civil litigation, domestic relations, juvenile probate work and appellate work at the 12th district court of appeals. After those eight years, she spent 13 years in the trial court.

“And every day I was trying cases with listening to the evidence, applying the law to the evidence and the facts and writing decisions,” Kennedy said. “So, that combined experience doing a wide variety of law. It’s really what we hear as the Supreme Court of Ohio. I think I’m uniquely professionally qualified to serve.”

The second aspect is one of the compelling issues that voters need to determine for themselves where they are, whether or not they’re on that continuum or spectrum of judicial philosophy. She said the role of the judiciary is to use reason and judgment and say what the law is, nothing more, nothing less.

“Are they an activist? Are they a centrist where their opinion of what a judge should do moves on the continuum based on what the case type is or are they to the right where it involves judicial restraint in our Republic?” Kennedy said.  “Meaning the founding of America, all of the separate, because people branches of government had a role to fulfill.”

The third prong is to serve at Ohio’s highest court. She said she’s prepared and willing to stretch beyond the traditional work of the court. She served on the alcohol and drug addiction services board, and explain that she is someone who is more committed than just doing the casework.

“That’s why I think that when you look at someone who wants to serve at Ohio Supreme Court, you should consider the bench, what is their judicial philosophy and what will they bring to make a difference in the lives of the people they’re going to touch?” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s goal as she enters the term of The Ohio Supreme Court is to continue her work and lean forward in advancing the treatment of veterans across Ohio to continue addressing the educational needs of lawyers and judges.

She is also working on a cultural consciousness program.

“We have looked at the issue of racism, judicial bias through a singular lens. And that is what’s the judge seeing from their own perspective,” Kennedy said. “Do they have explicit or implicit bias? And what you’re really seeing the need for is a cultural consciousness for us to appreciate what other cultures are like. What is their societal norms? What are their religion, what is it like to interact with someone who’s different from you?”

Kennedy further explained and said that there’s a lot to be said about what the U.S. military does before troops are deployed into foreign land, they are taught cultural consciousness.

Reporter Roles:

Shelby Reeves: Wrote the intro, Interviewed Professor Emeritus J. Dean Carro, edited Carro audio clip, created history timeline, created court makeup graph, general edits.

Becca Sagaris: Wrote Jennifer Brunner section, interviewed Brunner, edited Brunner audio clip, created Brunner By The Numbers graphic, general edits.

Sara Al Harthi: Wrote Sharon Kennedy section, Interviewed Kennedy, edited Kennedy audio clip.