COLUMBUS - Before she became Judge Judy, Judith Ann Lanzinger was on her way to becoming Sister Judy.
"I really believed I had a religious vocation," said the 58-year-old appellate judge. "The Franciscans have had a tremendous impact on my life. They have been such wonderful mentors, teachers.... I really believed this is how I wanted to spend my life."
But after teaching second grade at St. Jude's for a year, the novice with the Sylvania Franciscans decided not to take vows and left the convent in 1966, giving up an aspiration she'd held since fourth grade.
"I realized, especially dealing with the second graders who are 8 years old, that I really enjoyed the children so much," she said. "I couldn't imagine not having children of my own. I believe that's the real reason that I left, but I've still remained close to the sisters."
After serving three years on Toledo Municipal Court, 14 on Lucas County Common Pleas Court, and the last two on the 6th District Court of Appeals, Judge Lanzinger is running against Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Nancy Fuerst for an open seat on the Ohio Supreme Court.
The seat on the state's highest court will be vacated by Democrat Justice Francis Sweeney, whose age bars him from seeking another term. The Ohio State Bar Association rated Judge Lanzinger "highly recommended" in the contest while labeling her Democratic opponent "adequate."
Although the Supreme Court consists of five Republicans and two Democrats, philosophically the court is often aligned 4-3 on such hot-button issues as limits on jury awards in civil lawsuits, school funding, insurance policies, and workers compensation issues.
Judge Lanzinger espouses the philosophy of "judicial restraint" voiced by the all-Republican majority, which generally states judges should interpret laws enacted by the General Assembly, not make law themselves.
"I don't think judges are problem solvers for the state," she said. "That might not be everybody's point of view, but I do believe that we are confined within our separate branch of government."
Neither candidate is well known outside her home turf. With Fuerst a popular political name in Cleveland, Judge Lanzinger knows she must do well in northwest Ohio as well as the rest of the state to counter what could be a huge vote for Judge Fuerst out of Democrat-rich Cuyahoga County area.
Citizens for a Strong Ohio, a nonprofit arm of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, has launched radio and television commercials designed to increase Judge Lanzinger's statewide name recognition.
The judge has "old-fashioned values," is a "tough-on-criminals judge," and "believes in low taxes," say the ads. They urge listeners to call Judge Lanzinger but offer no information on how to contact her.
"The only thing they're missing is 'vote' in there .●.●." said Judge Fuerst. "Frankly, we have campaign contribution limits, and this is just another way to skirt those. What I think is troublesome is that it is made to look as if it's her campaign with everything but the word 'vote' in it."
The ads are financed wholly by corporate interests. Procter & Gamble, at $160,000, and the Westfield Group insurance company, at $110,000, are the largest contributors to date.
"That's the mystery of it all," said Judge Lanzinger "You don't have control over what other people are going to say about you or supposedly on your behalf. I'm just hoping that anyone who uses my name understands I don't want anything that's negative toward my opponent."
The daughter of a Toledo carpenter and granddaughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Judge Lanzinger hopes to make inroads with Toledo's labor community. The Ohio Teamsters has rated both candidates "qualified" and the judge picked up the endorsement of Teamsters Local 407 in her opponent's backyard, but Judge Fuerst has garnered the vast majority of labor support.
"I truly understand what it's like to be in a family that was supported at times with a union paycheck," said Judge Lanzinger.
Judge Lanzinger drew criticism locally in 1994 when she accepted a plea in the case of UT police officer Jeffrey Hodge, who kidnapped nursing student Melissa Anne Herstrum, 19, and repeatedly shot her. Hodge pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and kidnapping to avoid a potential death sentence.