LIMA — Experience?
Integrity and credibility?
Impropriety, or the appearance of it?
Those are among the issues raised by the Republican candidates seeking voter approval in the May 8 primary election to a seat on the Allen County Common Pleas Court bench.
The retirement of Judge David Cheney at the end of 2018 due to age restrictions has resulted in a GOP primary battle to elect his successor, with a pair of attorneys seeking to don Cheney’s robe. The race pits Terri Kohlrieser, an assistant Allen County prosecuting attorney, and Lawrence Huffman, who has 36 years of experience in the private practice of law in and around Allen County. No Democrat filed for the position.
“Experience” is a word that has come into play frequently during the campaign. Both candidates claim to have plenty of it. Their opponents aren’t so sure.
Kohlrieser joined the prosecutor’s office more than a decade ago and says her courtroom experience has given her “the necessary experience and qualifications” to serve as judge. “I am in that court nearly every day, and not as a spectator. I talk to the judges all the time. I consider myself a law nerd.”
Huffman cites his lengthy record of representing clients in a variety of legal scenarios and says he holds the upper hand when it comes to experience. He said that while the bulk of his courtroom experience has been in civil and misdemeanor criminal cases, he believes the depth of his practice will serve him well on the bench.
“I’ve practiced law twice as long as she has. I’ve been involved in civil jury trials, personal injury cases, trust litigation cases and civil and corporate litigation cases,” Huffman said. He has also represented clients in U.S. district court and before the Third District Court of Appeals.
“For me, it’s about representing clients, advising them of what they should do or shouldn’t do and what the law can or cannot do for them. For my opponent to claim she has more experience is simply inaccurate,” Huffman continued. “If a person has never represented anyone in a civil trial, it’s not an accurate example of ‘extensive’ experience.”
Kohlrieser believes there is more to experience than longevity as a practicing attorney. “Misdemeanor criminal experience is not remotely the same as felony experience. When it comes to common pleas court, a general experience is not sufficient, because of how technical it is and how high the stakes are,” she said.
A search of Allen County court documents shows Huffman has been the attorney of record on one felony criminal case in Allen County over the past 17-plus years.
Huffman has questioned relationships his opponent has developed as a prosecuting attorney and wondered aloud how she would deal with the “appearance of impropriety” if elected.
“There are 12 lawyers in my office, and if any one of those — when I am judge — has a case in common pleas court it will get transferred to Judge (Jeffrey) Reed so there is no conflict of interest on my part,” Huffman said. “I’m sure she believes she will be able to be fair and impartial. But that’s separate from the ‘appearance’ of impropriety. That’s a legitimate question for the people to consider,” said Huffman.
“I don’t doubt Terri’s integrity, but she’s never addressed the issue.”
Kohlrieser has received the endorsement of her boss, Allen County Prosecuting Attorney Juergen Waldick. She also has support from many of her current co-workers and law enforcement officials. Asked if she believes she can remain impartial from the bench if elected, Kohlrieser replied, “I don’t believe it; I know it. I’m always looking at a case objectively, based on the law. Juergen knows my work ethic; my temperament. He has endorsed me — let me make this clear — with no expectations. If I’m on that bench, I am going to do what I believe the law requires. I’m going to follow the law and everyone in the prosecutor’s office knows that.”
Kohlrieser said climbing the ranks from the prosecutor’s office to a seat on the bench is not uncommon. “Most judges in Ohio have been prosecutors or have significant criminal experience, which is a difference between my opponent and myself,” she said.
Kohlrieser graduated magna cum laude from University of Toledo in 1998 and received her juris doctorate from Ohio Northern University in 2001. She was named last year as the Outstanding Assistant Prosecutor of the Year by the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney’s Association.
“There’s a real need to have judges who really know what they are doing and are willing to make the decisions that are right — not necessarily the most popular,” she said. “You really have to make some very tough calls, based upon the law. And the decisions you make affect lives.”
Huffman studied law at Xavier University and attended Ohio Northern University, where he received his bachelor’s and juris doctorate degrees.
“Throughout my career, I’ve learned that personal passions aren’t as important as applying the law equally and fairly,” Huffman said. He vowed to be a thoughtful and unbiased jurist if elected.
“As a judge, it’s very important to recognize that your job is not to do something grand, but to simply apply the facts and the law.”
This is the second time Huffman has sought elected office. He was a candidate in 2004 for a seat on the Third District Court of Appeals but was not elected. Kohlrieser is making her first attempt at elected office.