Columbus -- While much attention is being paid to top-of-the-ticket races in next month's general election, Ohio voters also will be deciding a number of judicial races, including three seats on the Ohio Supreme Court.
Appeals court judges Pat DeWine and Cynthia Rice, who are facing off in one of those races, hope voters will take the time to vote down ticket, too.
"Our courts really matter," DeWine said. "We only have seven justices on the Supreme Court. Those folks that are there have a huge impact on the safety of our communities, they're deciding all kinds of criminal cases, the health of our economy, because the court creates the environment where people can create jobs, people can invest in the state. If we have an activist Supreme Court, then it's bad for Ohio's economy, people don't want to create jobs in the state. It also matters at the most basic level of protecting your individual rights."
He added, "Don't forget about the Ohio Supreme Court, because it really does matter."
And Rice offered, "The Ohio Supreme Court is such an important function here in the state of Ohio. They decide cases that affect all of us every day. It's important that voters pay attention to who their candidates are and vote in this race, because judicial candidates, whether it's the Ohio Supreme Court or the trial court level, play an important role in our criminal justice system and our civil justice system."
While they agree on that issue, DeWine and Rice are working to sway voters in their direction in one of two competitive races for the Ohio Supreme Court. The other features Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O'Donnell and First District Court of Appeals Judge Pat Fischer.
Incumbent Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor is unopposed.
Rice has served on the 11th District Court of Appeals for more than a dozen years, winning election to the bench three times. Prior, she served as assistant prosecutor in Trumbull, her home county, and then as the U.S. attorney in the general crimes division in Youngstown. She holds a law degree from the University of Akron Law School.
During her legal career, Rice said she has handled cases involving bank robberies, gang violence, drug issues, cyberstalking, capital murder and embezzlement.
"I spent a lot of time in the courtroom for over 12 years as a state and federal prosecutor," she said. "And I believe that experience would be an asset on the Ohio Supreme Court."
She added, "I think it's important that we have judges who have the most experience and qualifications to sit on our Ohio Supreme Court."
Rice also pointed to her Ohio State Bar Association rating of "highly recommended." DeWine received a "not recommended" rating from that same group.
"I think it's important for voters to know this and to recognize that they want to elect not someone based upon their name but on their experience and qualifications," Rice said.
DeWine countered that other local bar associations have rated him as "excellent" or "good," and he said he didn't agree with the state group's rating process, which he said was flawed and not balanced.
"Judges need to be running the courtrooms for the benefit of the public, not for the benefit of the lawyers," he said. "The lawyers and the public don't always have the same interest."
DeWine was elected to the First District Court of Appeals in 2012. He holds a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School, worked in private practice for more than a dozen years and served on the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. And he teaches law and government at the University of Cincinnati.
DeWine also served stints on the Cincinnati City Council and as a Hamilton County commissioner.
"I understand, I think in a way maybe the others don't, how the decisions the courts make really affect the health, the vibrancy of our local communities," he said.
DeWine is the son of Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine. He said he would recuse himself, as he does now, from cases that his father argues before the court or others, if necessary.
DeWine said he has a much broader legal experience than his opponent, and he urged voters to read through legal opinions written by both candidates.
"I think what you'll see about mine is they are written in plain English," he said. "They present a clear and consistent legal philosophy and they decided cases based upon the rule of law I think the voters can make their own choice based on that."
Judicial races in general elections are nonpartisan affairs -- no party labels are included on the ballot. But those same candidates run in partisan primaries, DeWine as a Republican and Rice as a Democrat.
Both candidates said their party affiliations do not sway their decisions from the bench.
DeWine said he reads through the language of the law, contracts and the constitution and rules accordingly.
"The text isn't Democrat or Republican," he said, adding, "The plain language isn't a party It really doesn't affect what we do."
Rice offered, "I don't think that this race or any judgeship is about being a Democrat or a Republican. There's no place for politics in judicial decisions. I think it's important that judges decide cases based upon the law that's written by our legislature and case law that we get from the Ohio Supreme Court."
Both candidates also had similar views of the role of the court in governance.
DeWine said he is not a "judicial activist."
"I don't believe that the role of a judge is to make the law," he said. "That's why we elected the legislature Our job as judges is simply to apply the law as it's written. I'm someone who sticks to the plain language of whatever is in front of my, whether it's a contract, whether it's a statute, a law passed by the representatives, or whether it's our Ohio or U.S. Constitution."
Rice said the judiciary is a "co-equal branch of government" that interprets and enforces the law.
"We don't write it," she said, adding, "I don't think it's a court role to write the law from the bench We can't decide cases based on what you want the law to be. You have to rely on what it is and apply it to the facts."
Take an issue like the death penalty.
Both candidates said capital punishment is the law in Ohio.
"Our jobs is not to decide whether the death penalty should or should not be the law," DeWine said. "It is the law. Our job is to apply the law" while ensuring all parties are treated fairly and legal proceedings are conducted properly.
Rice said the Ohio Supreme Court reviews all death penalty cases.
"I think it's important that we apply the law as it's written, regardless of any personal opinions or prejudices that you have," she said, adding that justices must ensure that such sentences are fairly and impartially applied.
DeWine's campaign website can be found online at www.patdewine.com. Rice's is at riceforjustice.com. And the state's judicial elections website, with additional information about all candidates for the bench, is at blogs.uakron.edu/judicialvotescount.
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.