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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

Pair of Republican justices face challenge

BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS Virtually ignored this year amid the din of the presidential election are two seats on the Ohio Supreme Court up for grabs on Tuesday.

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, 55, of Worthington, is seeking a third six-year term and is opposed by Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Peter Sikora, 56, of Cleveland, who is seeking admission into what is now an exclusively Republican court.

Justice Maureen O Connor, 57, of Cleveland Heights, is looking for a second term and is being challenged by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Russo, 46, also of Cleveland Heights.

Despite GOP dominance, philosophically the bench is divided 6-1. Justice Paul Pfeifer is the sole holdout left from what was as recently as 2002 a bipartisan 4-3 majority that frustrated Ohio s business community and Republican lawmakers by repeatedly striking down the state s method of funding schools and legislative attempts to cap lawsuit jury awards.

While still leaving their Democratic opponents in the dust, Justices Stratton and O Connor have raised far less in campaign contributions this year than six years ago.

Even outside spending, such as the Ohio Chamber of Commerce-backed Partnership for Ohio s Future, to promote the two Republicans is down compared to what its predecessor spent in 2002 when the philosophical composition of the court was at stake.

Everybody should feel like they have a fair shake when they come in front of us, as long as they realize they re not going to come to us to get social policy. This is not a bench that s going to do that, said Justice Stratton, who was nicknamed the Velvet Hammer while a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge.

But her opponent, Judge Sikora, a juvenile court judge since 1989, has accused the court of bending to the will of a Republican-controlled legislature and siding with those who cut checks for their campaigns. He s pointed to recent decisions upholding the legislature s latest tort reform limits as well as a decision that ultimately resulted in about 30,000 pending asbestos-related lawsuits being thrown out of court.

I feel that it is appropriate to look at a case that has been decided and to let people know I disagreed with that, he said. I m not making commitments. I m not saying how I would rule on a case that would be pending. I m not running against her. I m running against this court and its philosophical base.

Although they are nominated in partisan primaries, candidates for the high court do not appear on the general election ballot with party labels.

If you think that politics matters, if you say you should vote for me for the court because I m a Democrat, you don t belong on court, said Republican Justice O Connor, a former lieutenant governor and Summit County judge and prosecutor.

Politics shouldn t enter into the decision, she said. What you re saying is, I m going to vote like a Democrat.

Her opponent, Judge Russo, has proposed a cap on how much lawyers and parties to a lawsuit may contribute to justices campaigns before they would have to take themselves off the case.

I don t know whether my election would change any way this court rules because I haven t got preconceived notions about future cases, said Judge Russo, in his second term on the Cuyahoga County bench.

With that said, from the outside looking in, I think it s important for the court to have some balance in regards to party, if that s at all possible, he said. She hasn t been afraid to let everyone know that the court for the first time is all Republican.

Justice Stratton is the only candidate this year to receive the Ohio State Bar Association s highest rating of highly recommended. The others received the second-highest rating of recommended.



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