Last week, Cleveland appellate court Judge Melody J. Stewart became the first African-American woman and the first African-American Democrat to be elected to the Ohio Supreme Court. True, Stewart’s election may have had more to do with being the highest-rated judicial candidate in this year’s Supreme Court contests than with her race — or party. In an odd quirk, Ohio judicial elections are partisan in primaries but nominally nonpartisan in general elections, meaning party labels weren’t on the Nov. 6 ballot.
But when Stewart and fellow Cleveland jurist Michael P. Donnelly take their seats next year as associate justices, the state’s high court will have at least two Democrats on the seven-justice bench for the first time in 15 years. The last time that happened was from 1995 to 2004 when the late Francis E. Sweeney Sr. of the Cleveland area and Toledo Democrat Alice Robie Resnick both served. Currently the Ohio Supreme Court is all-Republican, and all-white.
What’s more, this time both Democrats will be from Greater Cleveland — attuned to the needs of urban Ohio, and determined, as they pledged in their endorsement interviews with our editorial board, to be change agents on the state high court.
Both Stewart, serving her third term on the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals, and Donnelly, in his 14th year on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court bench, said they would work to promote greater accountability, transparency, fairness, equity and efficiency in the high court’s oversight of the state’s judiciary and justice system. In particular, Stewart pledged to work to improve how the court oversees judges around the state, and Donnelly said he’d continue to push the court to accept a “truth in sentencing” reform that was advanced by the state’s judges and the high court’s own rules commission but that justices nixed on a 4-2 vote in 2016.
Change can often seem incremental in politics, and in the judiciary, but Ohioans in their votes last week effected a real difference on the state’s highest court.