Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Judge trades state bench for federal

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - After nearly two years of waiting, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Deborah Cook will trade in her elected job for an appointed one on the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The Senate's 66-25 confirmation vote Monday puts Cook, an Akron Republican, in front of cases that are just one legal step away from the U.S. Supreme Court. Appointed by President Bush in May 2001, Cook's Senate confirmation was one of several held up in a partisan struggle over federal court nominees.

Her departure also creates a GOP power vacuum on the Ohio Supreme Court, which Gov. Bob Taft is expected to quickly fill. Senior Taft officials have already begun interviewing nine candidates eager to replace the outgoing justice, a consistently conservative voice on the bench.

Those candidates include Middletown Appeals Judge Stephen Powell, and Cincinnati Appeals Judge Mark Painter, both of whom have run for the high court and lost. Painter was a candidate in 1992 and Powell lost to Democrat Justice Francis Sweeney in 1998.

Powell said he's traveling to Columbus on Wednesday to talk with Brian Hicks, the governor's chief of staff, and Judy French, Taft's chief legal counsel.

"Aside from the high honor, I just feel I'm qualified to take on the work," Powell said. "It's the next step up from where I've been sitting."

The other candidates include former Cleveland Appeals Judge Terrence O'Donnell, who lost a bitterly fought 2000 campaign to Justice Alice Robie Resnick; William Batchelder, a former state representative from Medina; and Guy Reese, the director of the Franklin County Board of Elections.

Rounding out the list are Cleveland Appeals Judge Michael Corrigan, Toledo Appeals Judge Richard Knepper, Trumbull County Appeals Judge Judith Christley and Franklin County Municipal Judge James Green.

At least 18 people were on a list of applicants for Cook's job, including Cincinnati City Prosecutor Ernest Fuller McAdams and Hamilton County Judge Sylvia Sieve Hendon, Ohio Treasurer Joe Deters' mother-in-law.

Holubec said the decision to interview only nine does not mean the other hopefuls have been crossed off.

"We may not interview any other candidates, but we reserve the right to," he said.

"The governor would like to make the appointment soon," Holubec added. "We don't have a self-imposed deadline on the process."

Whomever Taft selects will appear as an incumbent in the November 2004 campaign for the remainder of Cook's term - an important political leg up on any competitor, Democrat or Republican. Cook's term expires in 2006.

"I think that it's important that the governor appoint someone who is first a very good jurist, but who also will be a very strong candidate in the campaign next year," said Bob Bennett, the Ohio Republican chairman. "It's extremely difficult to knock off an incumbent justice in Ohio."

Bennett refused to say if he has a favorite on Taft's list, saying he's agreed to talk with the governor about Cook's replacement only after she's confirmed.

Cook's appointment languished in the Senate for nearly two years, until Republicans gained control of the chamber after the 2002 election. Some Democrat senators denounced her as biased toward business interests during her February confirmation hearing.

Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican, praised her as "an excellent judge and a gracious and giving individual who has dedicated a great deal of her personal time and energy to helping the underprivileged."

President Bush urged the Senate to act on other judge nominees.

"I again call on the Senate to put an end to the delays and to hold an up-or-down vote on all judicial nominees within a reasonable amount of time, regardless of who is president or which party controls the Senate," he said

E-mail shunt@enquirer.com

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