Tuesday, October 26, 2004
Life experiences separate Supreme Court candidates
By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - If voters are looking for judicial experience, even Nancy Fuerst admits that they should vote for her Supreme Court opponent, Judith Lanzinger.
But Fuerst, 53, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge for almost seven years who once worked as a county budget analyst and ran her own catering business, thinks that she would bring a broader range of experience to the state's highest court.
"If you want someone who's been around the block a few times and can add something to that marketplace of ideas ... I don't think there is anybody that brings the well-rounded approach that I bring," she said.
Fuerst and Lanzinger are running for the open seat created by the retirement of Justice Francis Sweeney, one of two Democrats on the seven-member court. It is one of three contested court races this year; Republican Justice Paul Pfeifer is running unopposed.
After 27 years in the legal profession, 19 of them as a judge, Lanzinger, 58, thinks that her qualifications in this race are unmatched.
"There's no one now on the bench of the Supreme Court who has been a municipal judge, a common pleas judge and court of appeals judge," she said. "Being a trial judge for 17 years really is an experience that is helpful when you're reviewing the cases of trial judges."
Lanzinger has served almost two years on the 6th District Ohio Court of Appeals. A Republican, she said she approaches cases with a philosophy that stresses judicial restraint - careful to interpret the law rather than make it.
"I believe in a limited role of the court, because I think that's what our country has stated - we have three branches of government," she said. "I'm not running for either of the other two branches."
Fuerst, a Democrat with six children and four stepchildren, sees the court's role a little differently, noting that although judges shouldn't have agendas, the court cannot be a rubber stamp for the state legislature.
"If something happens where a court does not approve a legislative enactment, does that mean it's an activist court? Or does that mean there was some problem with this legislation?" she said.
Perhaps the biggest issue in this race involves tort reform - the state's attempt to cap jury awards in civil lawsuits, particularly malpractice cases. The court struck down those caps in 1999, although Gov. Bob Taft signed a law placing new caps on malpractice cases in early 2003.
The health-care industry says doctors across Ohio will continue to get hit with skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance costs unless the Supreme Court upholds those caps.
Lanzinger, who is supported by health-care interests, said it's unfortunate that groups are putting pressure on the court to uphold the law or else doctors could leave the state.
"Once the legislation passes, that's the law," she said. She declined to say whether she agreed with the court's decision to strike down jury caps in 1999.
"Whether I would have ruled one way or another, I can't tell you," she said.
"Attorneys are very creative how they bring cases to the court."
Fuerst said a solution to malpractice-insurance costs for doctors is beyond what the court can do alone.
"I believe in the work of the jurors," she said.
"It is a right, and if something happens with a jury verdict, we have mechanisms written into our rules and our laws that protect against these runaway jury verdicts."
School funding remains a big issue for many voters, as more than 300 levies will appear on November ballots. The Supreme Court has said four times that the state's system is unconstitutional, but in its final December 2002 ruling, the court ended its oversight of the case.
"I agree with the holding that the present scheme is unconstitutional," Fuerst said.
Lanzinger does not express an opinion about the case.
The Ohio State Bar Association has rated Lanzinger "highly recommended," while Fuerst was rated "adequate."