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Analysis: Brunner's Run For Chief Justice A Roll Of The Dice For Ohio Democrats

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner.

The announcement by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner, the newest Democrat on the seven-member court, that she will run for Chief Justice in 2022, seems to me as if it could be a good news-bad news situation for the Ohio Democratic Party.

The ODP has been licking its chops for the longest time over the possibility of winning a majority on the court. The incumbent chief, Republican Maureen O'Connor, can't run for re-election because of the judicial age limits law. And that sets up an open battle for her job.

Brunner, a former Ohio secretary of state and appeals court judge, ousted Justice Judith French, a Republican, in last November's election. Brunner is no slouch when it comes to winning elections; she won the Ohio Supreme Court race at a time when Donald Trump was winning Ohio's electoral votes by eight percentage points.

Ohio Democrats were ecstatic over her win last November – it gave them three members of the Ohio Supreme Court, one short of a majority.

Now, there is concern among some Democrats that if she wins, the Republican governor, Mike DeWine, will be able to appoint a Republican to fill out the remainder of Brunner's term, which expires in January 2027.

But, having Brunner as chief justice, setting policy for the court – or, even better in Democrats' eyes, an outright Democratic majority (more on that in a bit) – would calm the fears of those who oppose the far-right majority in both the Ohio House and Ohio Senate. A Democratic majority, the theory goes, could put the brakes on an out-of-control GOP state legislature.

After all, this is the Ohio legislature which, in recent days, has been hearing testimony from a doctor and a nurse on an anti-vaccine bill sponsored by State Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester. This doctor, one Sherri Tenpenny, argued before a house committee that the COVID-19 vaccines allow tracking devices to be activated in people's noggins and creates a magnetic reaction to the extent that keys and silverware would stick to people's bodies.

All complete nonsense – although given how often I lose my keys, it would be nice just to be able to stick them on my forehead.

When they are not worrying about people being "magnetized" by COVID-19 vaccines, the Republicans in the legislature have a lot of other ideas to keep them occupied and give the Ohio Supreme Court some business in the near future.

That includes legislation that would restrict absentee balloting and early voting in Ohio; scale back abortion rights; and other bills Republican legislators say are aimed at rioters, but which others say would be an attack on First Amendment rights to protest the government.

Now, if you are an Ohioan who doesn't think the above legislation are very good ideas, you might have an interest in someone besides the Republicans controlling the Ohio Supreme Court.

This also explains why some Republicans in the legislature are pushing to change the law to require that party designations for Ohio Supreme Court justices be included on the ballot. Now, it is officially a non-partisan race. Republicans think having the "R" next to their candidates' will guarantee victory.

I doubt seriously if Jennifer Brunner is much impressed by that argument, given what she did last year to a Republican incumbent.

Now, about that Democratic majority I mentioned earlier...

The buzz in Columbus is that two current justices, Patrick DeWine (eldest son of the governor) of Hamilton County and Sharon Kennedy of Butler County are also considering running for the chief justice seat.

DeWine's term as one of the six justices ends in December 2022. So does that of another Hamilton County justice, Republican Pat Fischer.

Every indication is that Fischer plans to run for re-election. Theoretically, some Democratic candidate could up-end him in the Nov. 2022 election, but he would no doubt be the favorite going in.

Patrick DeWine would have to forego running for his current seat as a justice if he decides to run for chief. That would create a wide-open seat, and Ohio Democrats believe they are in a good position to win it. It all depends on whether Patrick DeWine decides to challenge Brunner.

If Brunner runs for chief justice and loses, she still will keep her seat on the Ohio Supreme Court until January 2027. Same goes for Kennedy.

One high-ranking Ohio Democrat who would speak only on background said the Brunner candidacy is something of a dice roll, but worth it.

Having Brunner in charge of the court, he said, would be worth the risk.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.
Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.