Election: 2 appeals court judges square off in Democratic primary for Ohio Supreme Court

"Gavel" is a public sculpture by Andrew F. Scott set in a pool outside the Ohio Supreme Court building in downtown Columbus.
"Gavel" is a public sculpture by Andrew F. Scott set in a pool outside the Ohio Supreme Court building in downtown Columbus.

Once again, it's a pivotal year for control of the Ohio Supreme Court, which will likely decide how the new abortion rights constitutional amendment should be interpreted.

Republicans have held a majority of the seven seats since 1986 − nearly four decades − but with three seats up for election this year the Democrats see a chance to flip the 4-3 court.

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Democrats must defend two incumbents, Justices Michael Donnelly and Melody Stewart, and win an open seat in the general election. But before they get there, they'll hold a primary March 19 to decide which appeals court judge will be nominated to run in the general election against Republican Dan Hawkins.

10th District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison, who lost her bid for the high court in 2022, and 8th District Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Forbes are facing off in the Democratic primary.

Who is Judge Terri Jamison?

10th District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison, a Democrat, is running for Ohio Supreme Court.
10th District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison, a Democrat, is running for Ohio Supreme Court.

Jamison, 64, took a nontraditional path to the bench.

She worked as an underground coal miner but after a layoff, she moved to Columbus. Jamison worked in a series of businesses, including an insurance agency. Eventually she ran her own agency for more than 16 years.

While working, she took classes at Columbus State Community College, transferred to Franklin University and graduated with a business degree. She sold her insurance agency to go to Capital University Law School. After a stint as a county public defender, Jamison started her own firm, focusing on criminal, juvenile, domestic and appellate work.

In 2012, she won a seat on the Franklin County Common Pleas bench in the domestic relations-juvenile division. In 2018 she won reelection.

In 2022, Jamison ran against incumbent Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick Fischer, losing by 14 points.

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This time around, Jamison argues that she has a better shot at winning. She is running for an open seat and her name has been on the statewide ballot before. "I think it's important that people have already met me, they've already talked to me."

Jamison said her life experience and blue collar background is more closely aligned with most Ohioans and she is focused on making sure justice is administered fairly and equally across the state.

"From the coal mines to the bench. And I'm still an associate member of the United Mine Workers because it's just a reminder of who I am," she said.

Jamison grew up in Welch, W.Va., where she began her education in segregated schools. She considers Brown v. Board of Education as the first case to personally impact her since it eventually led her to attending integrated schools.

If Jamison were to win a seat on the high court, she would be the third Black woman to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court. Of the 163 justices that have served since 1803, four have been Black and 13 have been women.

Jamison said reproductive rights, the new marijuana law and redistricting are all important issues likely to come before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Jamison also said she supports the Ohio Sentencing Data Project, a years-long effort to create a statewide database of criminal sentences. It would allow jurists, journalists, researchers and the public to see if similarly situated defendants get similar sentences. The project has met stiff resistance from a subset of Ohio's 700 elected judges who don't want comparisons made out of context.

"I think it should be out there because we are public officials," Jamison said. "The public has a right to know. And they need to know that justice is done fairly and equitably in court."

Who is Judge Lisa Forbes?

8th District Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Forbes.
8th District Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Forbes.

After earning a degree at Cornell University, Forbes moved to Washington, D.C., to launch a career in politics and policy. She knocked on congressional office doors until she landed a gig: an unpaid internship. She parlayed that into a paid job and later moved to campaign work.

Forbes left D.C. and politics to earn a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she was born.

"I definitely wanted to go back to Washington but fell in love with Cleveland and stayed and been happy ever since," Forbes said.

After clerking for a U.S. District Court judge, Forbes entered the world of civil litigation, working for two large law firms for 27 years.

Then Forbes took a leap. Instead of riding it out to retirement as a partner at Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease, she ran for a seat on the 8th District Court of Appeals in 2020.

Her approach? She said "I start with the law. I look at the facts and I see where they lead me, and I apply that to every case. I think that's an imperative because that's how you can be fair. It doesn't matter who the parties are, it doesn't matter what type of motion it is. What matters is what does the law say and what are the facts?"

After a little more than three years on the appellate bench, Forbes, 60, decided to run statewide for the Ohio Supreme Court. Forbes said like many Ohioans, she wants to make sure the court protects individuals' rights against government overreach.

"It's a question of service and calling. I have something to offer the people of the state of Ohio," she said. "When I started looking at the Supreme Court seat, I really saw an opportunity to do my part to help make sure that the Supreme Court serves as a firewall to protect our democracy and also to protect the rule of law."

She declined to opine on whether the Supreme Court currently serves as a firewall.

The Ohio Democratic Party endorsed Forbes over Jamison in the March primary.

Forbes said she earned the endorsement after calling and writing letters to members of the party's executive committee to make her case.

Campaign reports show Democrats behind

Forbes and Jamison both are trailing Hawkins, who reported having $176,689 in his campaign account. Forbes reported just $1,465 while Jamison has $18,618 on hand.

Forbes said she brought on a professional fundraiser and has held successful events since the report filing deadline. "I'm confident that I'll have enough money to run and win."

Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Election 2024: Democrats hold primary for Ohio Supreme Court race