LIMA — Bob Cupp could be bitter about Ohio’s process for picking Supreme Court justices.
For the past six years, he was the first Lima resident serving in the Ohio Supreme Court since James Price’s re-election in 1908. The Ohio State Bar Association rated him “highly recommended.” As the incumbent, he seemed to have everything going his way leading up to the Nov. 6 election.
“On the bright side, I carried western Ohio pretty soundly,” Cupp said. “… On the bad side, there are most people living in eastern Ohio.”
Cupp and fellow incumbent Yvette McGee Brown both lost their election bids. Cupp had the closest of the three races, with Democrat William O’Neill, a former judge currently working as a nurse, getting 52 percent of the votes.
Still, Cupp wouldn’t have it any other way. He scoffed at changing the process, in part because he didn’t think voters had a strong enough opinion on it to force a constitutional vote and in part because he fears the alternative, appointing high court judges.
“Every process has its shortcomings,” Cupp said after his speech. “If there were strictly an appointment system, there’d be an unbelievable effect politics played.”
Cupp showed his resistance to appointments after the election. A spot on the bench is available, with the impending retirement of Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton. Cupp didn’t apply for the appointment, despite his credentials for the job. He said he didn’t want there to be an appearance of favoritism toward Gov. John Kasich, a fellow Republican, in any cases coming before the court.
“Bob took the honorable route,” said Ben Rose, a former state representative and current vice president of the bar association. “That’s the kind of judge and the kind of character he is.”
In Cupp’s mind, the fairest way to choose a judge is to let the voters do it.
“The only way to change this is to amend the Ohio constitution,” Cupp said. “I don’t envision the people giving up the right to elect their supreme court justices here.”
In Cupp’s case, the November defeat partly fell to being on a busy ballot.
It’s not that he didn’t try in eastern Ohio. Cupp knew to beat O’Neill and keep his seat, he needed to market himself to voters in the population-heavy Cleveland region. Unfortunately for him, so did the presidential and U.S. Senate candidates and different organizations with an interest in those races, driving up the costs to advertise there.
Instead, he turned to heavy travel, trying to be seen in every corner of Ohio, meeting as many people as he could. He recalled one day starting in Van Wert and wrapping up in St. Clairsville. He estimated travelling 35,000 miles this election season, reviewing cases on a tablet computer as he criss-crossed Ohio.
“That’s enough to go around the perimeter of the state of Ohio 40 to 50 times,” Cupp said.
It came down to name recognition, since not even the Republican’s party affiliation appeared on the ballot. Despite all that travel, it wasn’t enough for the Columbus Grove graduate.
“We have long known that Supreme Court races often have been decided by if the voters can identify you,” Cupp said. “If you have a familiar sounding name, you’re set. That’s why we’ve had so many Celebrezzes and Sullivans here.”
The former Lima city prosecutor, Allen County commissioner, state senator and appellate judge said he remained focused on finishing out the year, clearing through as many cases on the court’s docket as possible. He said he’d evaluate his next move after his term ended.
He won’t spend it trying to change a system he still favors.
“This is still a better, more open system than one where politicians make all the decisions,” Cupp said.
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