An Explainer On Ohio Judges For Confused Voters

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Pamela Barker types at a computer in a courtroom in 2014.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Pamela Barker types at a computer in a courtroom in 2014. Barker has been nominated to serve as a federal judge. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

A big reason people don’t vote for judge is that they don’t know much about the candidates. But a not-small number of people say they skip judicial races out of confusion over the different types of judges.

Pollsters from the University of Akron surveyed judicial vote-skippers in 2014. Thirty percent of those respondents said confusion over judicial roles was “very important” to their decision not to vote. Another 36 percent said it was “somewhat important.”

That was former Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald Adrine’s experience, too. He spoke with us for our story on judicial elections.

“A lot of people that I encountered over time didn’t know the difference between a judge who sat on the municipal court bench and one who sat on the common pleas court bench, as opposed to one who sat on the court of appeals, as opposed to one who sat on the supreme court. Or anybody who sat on a federal bench,” Adrine said. “To them, they were all just judges.”

Judges in Ohio are elected to six-year terms. And while they may all be “just judges,” they play different roles within the legal system.

Municipal judges aren’t on the ballot this year—but candidates for common pleas, appeals court and supreme court positions are.

Here’s a rundown of the different courts in the state.

Municipal Court

Many cities in Ohio run their own courts or share a court system with surrounding communities.

At this level, judges are elected either citywide or by voters in a few neighboring cities. There are 13 such municipal courts in Cuyahoga County, covering all 59 municipalities here.

Municipal judges handle traffic and code violations and criminal cases in which defendants are charged with misdemeanors. They also hear lawsuits in which $15,000 or less is at stake.

These courts can also employ magistrates—unelected attorneys who assist the elected judge in conducting hearings.

Some cities also run specialized local courts, such as Cleveland Housing Court. The housing court judge presides over eviction cases, landlord-tenant disputes, housing code violations and condemnations.

Defendants arrested and charged with felony offenses will make a first appearance before a municipal court judge, who sets bond for them. Then the case is transferred—or “bound over”—to common pleas court.

Common Pleas Court

Common pleas judges preside over felony criminal cases, which run the gamut from fraud and drug trafficking to assault and aggravated murder—and numerous charges in between.

Before most felony cases, prosecutors present evidence to a grand jury, which votes on whether to bring charges in an indictment.

Judges on the common pleas bench preside over pretrial hearings and the trial itself—if there is one. Most criminal cases end in guilty pleas even before trial begins. In Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court last year, only 2.4 percent of criminal cases ended in a trial, according to the court’s annual report.

The common pleas court also oversees a range of civil cases, such as workers’ compensation claims, lawsuits for more than $15,000 and certain kinds of foreclosures.

Many counties also maintain specialized divisions:

Domestic relations judges handle divorces, spousal support, child support disputes and other cases. Juvenile court judges hear child abuse cases and those in which children and teens allegedly committed offenses. Probate judges issue marriage licenses, approve adoptions and oversee estate issues after someone has died.

County common pleas courts around the state also run dockets for cases involving drug addiction, mental illness and veterans’ issues.

Appeals Court

State appeals courts hear appeals of criminal and civil cases from the lower courts.

They can change, reverse or uphold the decisions made by municipal and common pleas judges. They also deal directly with certain types of disputes over the powers and decisions of local government officials.

Three appellate judges oversee each case, rendering decisions by majority vote. There are 12 appellate districts in Ohio, and judges are elected districtwide.

Supreme Court

The seven justices on the Ohio Supreme Court are elected statewide.

They hear appeals of cases from the lower courts. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, its decisions can set influential precedents for the rest of the state.

The state supreme court also sets standards for the practice of law in Ohio. It can discipline attorneys and judges for misconduct.

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