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Stewart argues diversity crucial for Ohio Supreme Court

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COLUMBUS — Judge Melody Stewart’s journey to what she hopes will be a seat on Ohio’s highest court began with a love of music.

“We had Aretha Franklin, God bless her soul, and the Motown sound playing through our house, but we also had Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin,” the Cleveland appellate judge said. “I’m a classically trained pianist. I was the only kid in my neighborhood with a piano in the house that (my mother) got on an installment plan.”

Judge-Melody-Stewart-1

Judge Melody Stewart.

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Despite getting a degree in music from the University of Cincinnati, it wasn’t Carnegie Hall that beckoned but rather health care, academia, and, eventually, the courtroom.

“Music was the only thing I wanted to study coming out of high school,” Judge Stewart said. “I went to an all-girls, college-prep high school in Cleveland…I never thought about how I would translate a music degree into providing for myself.”

RELATED: Justice DeGenaro doesn't toe the party line

She started reading the law books that a company executive/law student brought into the health-care management office where she worked. That led to law school, teaching law at schools like the University of Toledo, and ultimately the bench of the Eighth District Court of Appeals for 12 years.

A Democrat and African American, Judge Stewart, 56, is running for what is now an all-Republican, all-white Ohio Supreme Court opposite recently appointed Justice Mary DeGenaro in the Nov. 6 election.

“The fact that I’m a Democrat and Democratic nominees have a hard time getting elected (to the court), the fact that I’m African American and African-Americans have a hard time getting elected, then to have my opponent appointed so that she’s technically an incumbent…, certainly made the race more difficult for us,” Judge Stewart said.

She argues that diversity is crucial for the court.

“My opponent is certainly qualified and competent but does not improve the court in any respect,” Judge Stewart said. “If anything, it may be more detrimental to the court because it maintains the grave possibility of group think.

“My election improves the court with diversity of background, diversity of thought,” she said. “Ohio is a very diverse state. We are urban, rural, suburban, farming communities, technology, educational institutions, blue collar, white collar, no collar. The highest level of the judiciary should be more reflective of understanding those pockets in those communities.”

Her current court, the Eighth District covering Cuyahoga County, is all Democrat. But Judge Stewart noted that there are also all-Republican courts of appeals elsewhere in the state. The difference, she said, is that the Supreme Court is the last stop for justice for Ohio law.

Both candidates have been rated “highly recommended” by the Ohio State Bar Association.

Until recently, she served on the bipartisan Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee that recommended reforms to criminal statutes that, among other things, looked at whether the law sometimes over-criminalizes and over-penalizes some conduct.

She chairs the state panel that sets rates paid to defense lawyers who handle death penalty cases. Like her opponent, she has considered post-conviction appeals of capital cases on the appellate bench but has never imposed a death sentence.

The justice that Justice DeGenaro replaced, Democratic former Justice William O’Neill, refused to set execution dates, arguing Ohio’s death penalty is unconstitutional.

Don’t expect similar actions from Judge Stewart.

“Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I was adamantly opposed to the death penalty,” she said. “That would not impact my work. The death penalty is still the law of Ohio.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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