State high court justice details job

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy met with local Republicans and the public during her visit to Tiffin Tuesday.

Kennedy has served on the Ohio Supreme Court since December after being elected to an unexpired term. Previously, she served as a domestic relations judge in Butler County and started her career as a police officer.

At the informal breakfast Tuesday, she considered a judge’s philosophy as the most important viewpoint voters need to know about judicial candidates.

“For me, personally, it’s one of restraint,” Kennedy said. She explained that each branch of government was set up for specific reasons, and as part of the judicial branch, her function is interpreting law and applying to cases.

“If a judge does that, what you’re actually doing is usurping your authority,” Kennedy said.

She said her job is to interpret state law.

“Even if I don’t like (a law) … it’s not up to me to strike it down and create what Sharon Kennedy likes. Because what Sharon Kennedy thinks is irrelevant. It’s what (the voters) think is important. It is what the representatives do that is important in creating a law.”

She cited a divorce case she worked. Two lawyers wanted her to sign off on a custody order, but she knew she did not have the authority, because the children were under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

Instead of signing the order, she discussed the problem with her state representative. After two years, the representative fixed the issue.

“It’s about honoring your limitation but still recognizing the problem and helping people fix it legitimately,” she said.

Kennedy said her background as a police officer helped with court dealings.

“You are engaging in the public,” she said. “You are going to make a decision quickly … you become a critical thinker. … I think those things help you as a judge,” she said. As a trial court judge, she said she would look at body language, voice inflection and answers to questions when considering the credibility of witnesses.

Applying that evidence to the law is “exactly what a police officer does,” Kennedy said. “It’s still the same thought process. The only difference is time.”

Kennedy said the best trait she brought to the Ohio Supreme Court was her background in domestic relations law.

Of all cases that come before the high court, 19 percent are from probate, juvenile and domestic relations, she said.

“I read criminal cases and can see myself in the role of the police officer and what they’ve done,” she said. “It helps you look at the questions presented more critically.”

When considering Justice Maureen O’Connor’s proposition for changing how judicial elections are run, Kennedy gained insight through her travels.

The plan asks whether judicial elections are held in odd-numbered years, whether party affiliation should be eliminated, whether justices should be nominated, and the possible extension of judicial terms.

Kennedy has discovered that many Ohioans disagree with O’Connor. One major concern was involvement of the Ohio Senate in the appointment of justices. In her discussions with individuals, she has found that many do not think the Senate involvement, like the federal system, will be helpful in Ohio.

“You would be changing the whole structure of it,” she said. “What is to say that you had a governor from a party different from that of the majority of the Senate? … You see that played through in the federal system, where (if) you have a Republican president and a Democratically controlled Senate, (the appointee is) met with higher scrutiny and (is) not sworn in.”

Even with this issue, Kennedy is pleased with her position. “It is exactly as I thought it would be,” Kennedy said. “And it is fantastic.”