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Democrats hope to break Republican hold on Ohio high court

FILE - In this April 27, 2010, file photo, U.S. Senate candidate Jennifer Brunner, D-Ohio, speaks with supporters in Toledo, Ohio. Brunner, a state appeals court judge in Columbus, is a former county court judge who served as Ohio Secretary of State from 2007 to 2011. Brunner is running against Republican Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judi French. (AP Photo/John Seewer, File)

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Democratic challengers are hoping to upend Republicans’ majority on the Ohio Supreme Court in a pair of races this November that feature familiar debates over the role justices should play in interpreting state law.

A coalition of major business groups have endorsed the two Republican candidates — incumbent justices Sharon Kennedy and Judi French — as the best choices for maintaining “a sense of predictability” in Ohio’s business climate. And in a sign of the court’s expected role in reviewing congressional maps to be redrawn next year, Republican strategist Karl Rove is soliciting donations for French.

The Democratic Party of Ohio, meanwhile, is criticizing those same justices for a 2016 ruling that limited non-economic damages in child rape cases.

Democratic challenger Jennifer Brunner is seeking to unseat French. Brunner, a state appeals court judge in Columbus, is a former county court judge who served as Ohio Secretary of State from 2007 to 2011.

French, a former assistant Attorney General and legal counsel for former Republican Gov. Bob Taft, is running for her second full six-year term on the court. French won election in 2014 after being appointed to the court a year earlier.

In a second race, the incumbent Kennedy faces Democratic challenger John O’Donnell.

Kennedy is a former police officer in the city of Hamilton in southwestern Ohio who later served as a domestic relations judge. She is also running for her second full six-year term after winning election in 2014. She also won election in 2012 to fill an unexpired term.

O’Donnell, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge, is making his third run for the court. He narrowly lost to current Republican Justice Patrick Fischer in 2016, and lost to French in her 2014 race.

O’Donnell’s 2016 loss was blamed in part to anger by some Black voters over his ruling a year earlier acquitting a white Cleveland police officer involved in the deaths of two Black suspects. The two were each shot more than 20 times at the end of the November 2012 pursuit that included a total of 137 shots, including 49 fired by officer Michael Brelo.

In his ruling, O’Donnell said he would not offer up Brelo to an angry public if the evidence did not merit a conviction.

In June, the state’s biggest business groups, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Ohio Farm Bureau, endorsed French and Kennedy.

“It is crucial for businesses to have a sense of predictability when it comes to the business climate,” said then Ohio Chamber President Andy Doehrel. French and Kennedy “both have demonstrated records of applying the law as written, not legislating from the bench.”

Republicans often level the “legislating from the bench” charge at Democratic judges, accusing them of trying to make laws instead of interpreting them. Both Kennedy and French used similar phrases in an Oct. 9 candidates’ debate.

“Our role as judges is to serve as independent bodies, to interpret the law as it’s written, not rewrite it or legislate from the bench,” Kennedy said in that forum.

French said keeping her on the bench speaks to “the importance of following the law, of being someone who’s not an activist, someone who exercises judicial restraint and doesn’t take the law into our own hands.”

Brunner said she takes the separation of powers between the three branches of government seriously. But during the Oct. 9 forum, she added: “There are times when the judiciary must fully occupy its lane, and do its job to check the other branches of government.”

For his part, O’Donnell invoked the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to school desegregation. If not for those justices’ judicial activism, O’Donnell said, “We’d still have separate and truly unequal systems of education in our country.”

In 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 — with Kennedy and French voting in the majority — to reject a request from a woman raped by a pastor when she was 15 to boost the amount of damages paid by the church where the minister worked. The court’s decision reduced a $3.6 million jury award to the woman and her father to about $385,000, out of which she had to pay attorneys’ fees and other costs.

“Ohio needs new Supreme Court justices to protect victims of rape and abuse,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis said in a statement earlier this month.

The upcoming redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines, likely to end up before the state Supreme Court, has attracted national attention to the race including Rove’s plea to donors.

In that message, Rove. former advisor to President George W. Bush, said “well-funded left-wing interest groups from outside Ohio” are vying to unseat French in order to redraw the lines of state legislative and congressional districts to benefit Democrats.

The Republican candidates both lead in fundraising. French had raised about $944,000 as of September, compared to $627,000 for Brunner. Kennedy had raised about $1.2 million compared to $524,000 for O’Donnell.

Three candidates — Brunner, Kennedy and O’Donnell — received “recommended” ratings from the Ohio State Bar Association. Only French received a “highly recommended” rating.