COLUMBUS — Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Donnelly walks around with stacks of legal-sized papers nearly 200 pages long of sex offender cases in his county that have been pleaded down to charges having nothing to do with sex.
Such deals perturbed him enough that he will no longer allow prosecutors to pitch plea deals behind closed doors in his chambers, transparency that he said would benefit other parts of the judiciary.
“If they want to see me about a proposed plea agreement, we do it out on the record where the criminally accused, the person whose life is going to be affected, and, if there’s a victim, (they) can see and have a full understanding of what’s taking place,” the 52-year-old judge said.
“My position has always been that no one should ever say things back in chambers that they wouldn’t say verbatim on the record,” he said.
The Democrat is vying for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court on the Nov. 6 ballot. He faces Republican Fifth District Court of Appeals Judge Craig Baldwin.
Judge Donnelly tried without success to get the rest of his common pleas court to change its rules on how pleas are adopted. He pointed to cases where rape charges were plea-bargained down to interference with custody and numerous charges of downloading child pornography to felonious assault.
“When people get these deals, it causes people to question whether they have confidence in the system,” he said.
Judge Donnelly has served since 2005 on Ohio’s largest common pleas court. He notes that he’s the only one of four candidates running for two seats on the bench who has prosecutorial experience. He has also presided over criminal and civil trials while his opponent’s judicial experience has been on domestic relations and appeals courts.
Judge Donnelly and Judge Baldwin have been rated “highly recommended” by the Ohio State Bar Association.
Judge Donnelly served on the Supreme Court’s capital punishment task force, whose final report questioned the fairness of how Ohio’s death penalty is applied and recommended a series of reforms to lawmakers that, for the most part, have gone nowhere.
“I believe, and the statistics will prove this, whether someone gets the death penalty in the state of Ohio does not depend on how heinous the crime is,” Judge Donnelly said. “It depends on where the crime takes place because they only prosecute it where they have resources.”
He’s the only Supreme Court candidate who has presided over a capital trial, although ultimately the jury did not return a death sentence.
Despite his questions about the death penalty, he said he would vote to set execution dates.
“The death penalty is a legislative issue,” Judge Donnelly said. “It’s already been held to be constitutional..., but people should know how it’s being applied. But as far as a justice, I’m bound to follow the law.”
He said the term “judicial activism” has been raised by Republicans in past mostly successful campaigns for the court “to raise the specter that a Democratic candidate would legislate from the bench.”
“As a judge I find that offensive, because I take the same oath as my partners on the other side,” he said. “We run under political banners in the state of Ohio, and we really shouldn’t because being a judge has nothing to do with Democratic or Republican politics.”
He said the current all-Republican court could use more diversity.
“It’s not the fact that I’m a Democrat,” Judge Donnelly said. “It’s a fact that when you have all the justices who are currently on (the court) from the same party, their campaigns are all supported by the same interests. They all travel in the same circles.”
Judicial candidates appear on the general election ballot without party labels.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.
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