As we head into another election season, I again see no black man or woman running for judge in Mahoning, Trumbull or Columbiana counties.
And, last week, I received an email detailing a new report by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, a progressive legal organization based in Washington, D.C., that said Ohio’s court system is failing to adequately represent the diversity of the state’s population.
The report – “The Gavel Gap: Who Sits in Judgement at State Courts?” – presents original research that demonstrates the lack of minority and female representation among state judges.
The report was authored by law professors Tracey E. George and Albert H. Yoon.
According to the report, the data set, collected for the first time in a comprehensive and systematic manner, compiles the race, ethnicity and gender of 10,000 sitting judges on state courts of general jurisdiction.
George and Yoon examined the biographical information of judges in 51 jurisdictions across the country and compared the percentage of women and minorities on each state judicial bench to that of the state’s general population.
The states were then graded based on how closely their benches reflected their populations, with states close to or at parity receiving an A, and states with a representation gap of 40 percent or more given an F.
The research shows Ohio is one of 26 states to receive a failing grade, ranked 28 out of 51 state court jurisdictions in the country for gender and racial diversity. On average, Ohio’s judiciaries are 41 percent less diverse than the state population.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau report for 2015 shows Ohio’s black population at 12.7 percent. According to surburbanstats.com, there are slightly more than 30,000 black people living in Youngstown. The city’s total population is between 65,000 and 66,000.
According to the National Center for State Courts, Ohio has no black judges on the state Supreme Court, just five black appellate court judges and 12 blacks on the common pleas court bench.
In fact, Ohio has had only one black person ever elected to the Supreme Court – Robert Morton Duncan, who served from 1969 to 1971. He died in November 2012 at age 85.
In my 64 years of life, no black person has ever been elected to the common pleas court bench in Mahoning, Trumbull or Columbiana counties. No black person or woman has been elected to Warren Municipal Court.
I can recall only two black people elected to Youngstown Municipal Court – the late Lloyd R. Haynes Sr. and Robert A. Douglas Jr.
Judge Haynes was appointed to the court by former Ohio Gov. John J. Gilligan in 1972 to fill the unexpired term of Judge Joseph Donofrio, who moved on to the serve on the 7th District Court of Appeals. Judge Haynes was elected to his first term in 1973. He retired in 1989. He died in 2006 at age 89.
Judge Douglas also ran the Trumbull County Welfare Department and the Mahoning County Department of Human Services and worked for the Youngstown Community Development Agency, former U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., and was an assistant Trumbull County prosecutor.
Former Gov. George Voinovich appointed Douglas to the municipal court bench in 1997 to fill the unexpired term of Judge Luke Levy. He was first elected in 1999. He served until his retirement in 2012.
With Judge Robert Milich set to retire from the municipal court bench because of age restrictions, the question is will a black lawyer choose to enter the political fray and seek that position?
Mahoning County has more than 600 lawyers; Trumbull County more than 280; and Columbiana more than 100. My guess is that there are fewer than 50 black lawyers practicing in all three counties.
Many lawyers are self-employed, so it takes a lot of time and money to run for elected office, and campaigning often starts early.
Ohio judicial elections consist of a partisan primary and a nonpartisan general election. In even-numbered years, like this year, Ohio voters elect justices and judges to the Supreme Court, appellate courts, common pleas and county courts.
In odd-numbered years, voters elect judges for service on municipal courts.
It will be interesting to see if any black candidates step up to run in 2017.
Tracey E. George of Vanderbilt University wrote in the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy report:
“The vast majority of Americans’ interactions with the judicial system, ranging from traffic violations to criminal proceedings, happen in state courts. When people do not see themselves represented in their community leadership, when the vast majority of judges cannot relate to the lived experience of those they serve – this is a problem.
“It creates a mistrust of judges, and propagates the mystery surrounding the court system. For the first time, we have the data we need to identify and address this serious problem.”
To read the report, go to gavelgap.org.
Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly minority-affairs column. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.