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Ohio’s Supreme Court Elections Epitomize the Battle for Working Class America

Three trailblazing women are taking on wealthy, right-wing candidates funded by dark money

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Narrated By David Pepper

The midterm contest for the Ohio State Supreme Court elections could decide the fate of crucial issues like abortion, worker’s rights, and democracy itself. Democratic candidates, including a Black woman who worked as a coal miner and a Latina who grew up in poverty, are up against the Ohio Governor’s anti-choice son and a corporate lawyer. Former Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party David Pepper breaks it down.

David Pepper: Access to abortion, public education funding, voting rights, living wages, democracy itself, are all on the line in this Ohio election.

[News Clip]: The Ohio Supreme Court has played a key role this year.

[News Clip]: You’ve likely heard a lot of talk about the Ohio Supreme Court.

David: Thanks to illegal gerrymandering, Republicans are set to maintain control of the Ohio State House, but there’s one line of defense left for the people of Ohio, and that’s November’s State Supreme Court Elections. The candidates for the three seats could not be more different.

Republican candidates include two incumbents, Pat Fischer and Pat DeWine, the son of sitting Governor Mike DeWine. All three Republicans are right-wing ideologues, being helped by dark money from the state’s business lobby.

Jennifer Brunner: My opponent and a couple of the other justices keep talking about predictability, but they talk about predictability in the context of being endorsed by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, by the Farm Bureau Federation, by business organizations, and the implication is that’s predictability for business.

David: This is Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner. She’s the Democrat running for the Chief Justice position.

Jennifer: I think their view is that if you make things right for business, then everything will be right for everybody else, which is just another version of trickle down. And we know that hasn’t worked.

David: The Republican slate is dominated by wealthy and well-connected lawyers, one born into a political dynasty. Their opponents have very different biographies.

Marilyn Zayas: It’s really my childhood that has formed the basis of my judicial philosophy. I was actually born in Spanish Harlem and then moved to Washington Heights. It was just a regular working class neighborhood, and within a very short period of time, it became something very different. I was completely devastated by the heroin epidemic of the 1970s.

David: This is Marilyn Zayas. She’s an appellate court judge seeking to become the first Latina on the Ohio State Supreme Court. A one time public defender, she’s running against incumbent Justice Pat DeWine, who is the son of the sitting governor and continues to rule in cases involving his dad as a party in the case. Justice DeWine has also said he does not believe that Ohio’s women have the constitutional right to privacy.

Marilyn: I grew up in circumstances where I was expected to be a statistic and I was often treated as if I was going to grow up to be a statistic. So when you look at the law, to me the law is the great equalizer. When people come to court, they want an equal opportunity to be heard. So how do you do that? You, you know, faithfully, faithfully apply the law and our Constitution, which is so important, equally to everybody.

David: This is Judge Terri Jamison, also an appellate judge. She’s running against Patrick Fischer, a corporate lawyer who recently compared Roe v. Wade and abortion to slavery and segregation.

Terri Jamison: Well, I did grow up in small town West Virginia, and I was a third generation coal miner. It was one of the challenges, I’d say, that I undertook. At that time not many women were working in the coal mines. A lot of the older coal miners in particular were skeptical and believed that women cause problems being there.

David: Judges Jamison and Zayas both paid their way through college and went to law school later in life. All three justices attended public schools, which are under siege in Ohio, again, by an illegally gerrymandered legislature.

Marilyn: If you’re living in a gerrymandered district, then depending on where you stand in politics, you either have an incredibly strong voice, or you don’t have a voice at all.

Terri: I like to say it this way. When you look at the districts, I think that a lot of the Ohioans I’ve spoken to feel like their representatives are choosing them rather than them choosing their representative. I think it’s critical that individuals get to select their representative and they’re not feeling that that’s what’s happening in the current system.

Jennifer: Once computerization came into the district-drawing process, the districts could be drawn with such precision that a person on one side of the street could be in a different district than the other side of the street. My husband and I voted in a congressional race and he was given a different ballot than I was given even though we lived in the same house.

David: Justice Brunner spent years fighting against gerrymandering as Ohio’s Secretary of State. She voted against the unconstitutional maps that the three Republican justices voted for, including Justice DeWine voting for his own father’s illegal maps.

Marilyn: The commission that was involved in putting those maps, the governor played a role in that commission. There was a high level of criticism of the governor’s son failing to recuse himself on the determination whether those maps were constitutional. 

Imagine myself as a court of appeals judge if my cousin came and they had a case and I failed to recuse myself. I would expect that that would impact people’s perception of the integrity of the court. The elections have high stakes for working people.

David: Schools, abortion access, voting rights, democracy itself, are all on the line. So are workers’ rights. Judge Zayas’ parents worked in factories, Judge Jamison was a coal miner, and Justice Brunner spent years working for the AFL-CIO.

Jennifer: I feel like in this election, that’s what people are looking for. And they’re looking for people who want to be good public servants and who understand the true nature of the people of Ohio. People find sometimes at very scary points in their lives how much effect the judiciary can have on their lives, and so they want the best people possible, trained in the best ways, and with the best motivations for doing what they do.

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