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We Asked People in Cleveland What They Want to Know About Judges

They want to know about judges’ track records, legal experience and how they think about rehabilitation vs. prison time.

Highlighted quotes from people in Cleveland, including "What is their philosophy on children and families?" and "What are their agendas for helping Black and other minorities of color?"

Judges decide the fate of thousands of Clevelanders each year. But in November 2020, during the last presidential election, about a third of Cuyahoga County voters who showed up at the polls skipped voting in races for judges that hear felony cases.

As a result, only about a quarter of the total votes in races for judge that year came from Cleveland residents, even though they face criminal charges at more than four times the rate of people from the suburbs.

Testify is published in partnership with WOVU, Cleveland Documenters, The Cleveland Observer, The Real Deal Press, The Land, Ideastream Public Media and the Cleveland Scene. Learn how you can reprint our stories here.

That striking imbalance means that predominantly White voters in the suburbs effectively had three times more power than predominantly Black Clevelanders in selecting judges.

Voting participation varied widely: Nearly half left judicial races blank on their ballots in several Cleveland precincts, while slightly more than 13% did so in an area of suburban Shaker Heights, according to county voting records analyzed by The Marshall Project.

The reasons that some voters don’t participate range from a deep distrust of the justice system, to simply not having enough information when voting to elect or remove judges.

To learn more from the perspective of residents — some who vote and some who don’t —The Marshall Project collaborated with Cleveland Documenters, who interviewed more than 40 people about where they learn about judicial candidates, whether the information is helpful and what more they’d like to know about them.

Here’s some of what we learned:

What do you wish you knew about judicial candidates before casting your vote for or against them?

  • Danny McLaughlin, 36, Kamm’s Corner
    If they're a judge, and they've been a judge, I'd like to know a little more about the kinds of rulings they've had, the kinds of cases they've heard. And if they're not a judge, I'm still pretty sure you at least have to be a lawyer or have passed the bar association. So what kind of lawyer were they? Were they a public defender? Where can I find that kind of information? And this is part of my problem — I don’t even know what kinds of questions to ask about someone in the legal field to get a sense of who they were as a lawyer and who they might be as a judge.
  • Sara R. Jackson, 79, University Circle
    Well, I would like to know their records of how they sentence and how strict they are or how lenient they are or if they are more prejudiced one way or another way.
  • Kirsten Radivoyevitch, 56, Cleveland Heights
    I would like to know how they’ve judged in the past. It helps me think about how they might also judge in the future. I also like to know that there is some leniency because people make mistakes.
  • Rachel Drotar, 30, Ohio City
    I wish I knew their track record as far as like... traffic violations, or the amount of people and what background they all belong to, economic background, race background and the like, and what the judges track record is compared to the population. And what their rulings have been in the past.
  • Marceal “Macy” Smith, 37, Cleveland Heights
    When they're making a decision on a case, you know, are they more pro rehabilitation or straight to prison or, you know, what is their philosophy on children and families? From a social worker's point of view that’s what I like to think of.

If you could ask one question of a person running for judge. What would that question be?

  • Rachel Drotar, 30, Ohio City
    I think I would ask them, ‘do you trust that jail time is a rehabilitation strategy?’ Also, I don’t know if judges have received funds from the police, or the jail, or any other private company. That would be illuminating and valuable information.
  • Victoria McBride, 31, Cleveland
    I think I would ask, ‘what is their stance on rehabilitative versus punitive sentencing?’
  • Martin Timpiero, 61, Cleveland
    Do you feel that the court system is biased towards people of low income rather than race?
  • Suhaylah Hamzah, 29, Brecksville
    What do they base their decisions on when it comes to charging people of different backgrounds and different races or religions or creeds or anything like that?
  • Phil Lodge, 50, Kamm’s Corner
    I would love to know their thoughts on campaign finance. I know that justice is supposed to be allegedly blind. But there’s something about if someone donates to your campaign, and they also appear in your court... it just feels gross.
  • Harold Leroy Walker, 68, South Euclid
    How do you deal with younger black males? They seem to be facing always end up being tried as adults. And so I want to know how you are going to handle that.
  • Kellie Pearson, 54, Parma Heights
    I want to know what is their record as far as it goes to my community? Police reform, I want to know where do they stand when they talk about police brutality? I want to know what is their record like. Is this a judge I should have to worry about? Is he thinking about the people? And when I mean people, I mean justice. Is he thinking about justice? Or is he thinking about, ‘Oh, don't worry, don't worry if this police officer is in trouble, we'll just, okay, case denied.’

Do you feel like there's enough information available to help you decide which judges to vote for?

  • Victoria McBride, 31, Cleveland
    I have seen a website in the past that talks about judges’ records and how they've ruled and how they're rated by the Ohio bar, perhaps. But, even that, I don't know those people, who are the folks in the Ohio bar and what is their criteria for deciding which judge gets four gavels out of five or whatever.
  • Martin Timpiero, 61, Cleveland
    There's no public forum. What was the last time you saw a debate or even something on the radio? You don't. You don't see it. So people are blindly voting names that they regularly hear.
  • Harold Leroy Walker, 68, South Euclid
    It's not that much information out there contrasting one from the other. They seem to pursue that position based on familiarity, but by others who know who they are something. Most of them, I don't know where they are and they don't provide information to help me understand where they are.
  • Kirsten Radivoyevitch, 56, Cleveland Heights
    No, I don't. You know, billboards don't tell you anything. Yard signs don't tell you anything. They just tell you who your neighbors are voting for. So that's why I feel like I need to do my online research.

Testify is The Marshall Project’s investigation into Cuyahoga County’s Criminal Courts. Learn more about this project and how to contact us directly. Have questions? Attend our office hours on February 3rd or February 8th.

Interviews were conducted by these Cleveland Documenters: Marian Bryant, Kathryn Johnson, McKenzie Merriman, Alicia Moreland, Angela Pohlman, Keith Seward, Mildred Seward and Chau Tang