A Split Decision

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

Three men have lined up to take the seat that will be vacated in November by long-time Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Walton. With no challenger from the Democratic party, and barring an independant challenger, the winner of the May 2 primary will be the newest judge.

Charles Cooper

One contender who’s seen share of the inside of the common pleas court is Charles Cooper, an attorney who’s tried many cases there.

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A 1965 graduate of Ironton High School, he received his undergraduate degree from the Ohio State University in 1969. After serving duty with the Ohio National Guard, he received his law degree from Capital University in 1973. For 28 of his 33 years as an attorney, he has served as an assistant Lawrence County Prosecutor.

Despite his three decades as an attorney, Cooper said the decision to leave it behind was an easy one.

“It’s frankly something that I’ve had on my mind for quite a long time. It’s really been one of my lifelong goals,” Cooper said. “I was just waiting on a judgeship to open up. I didn’t want to run against a sitting judge.”

Although he doesn’t have competition from someone in the judge’s seat, Cooper does have to contend with two other men in the Republican primary. As there’s no Democrat challenger, the winner of that race will, barring an independent challenger, be the de facto winner of the November election.

Cooper, however, isn’t bothered by the accelerated timetable or competing against two fellow Republicans. One, a winner in May will mean that the victor has plenty of time to wrap up his practice (or, in the case of magistrate John Kehoe, find a replacement.)

But also, Cooper is in a race that is markedly different from the heated one for the municipal court judgeseat that ended last November. He said he believes that at the end of the race there should be little animosity.

“My relationship with the other two candidates is very good. We’ve known one another for years, we’re collegues, and I think we all have a mutual respect for one another,” Cooper said.

That friendly relationship doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel he’s the best man for the job.

“I’ve been trying jury trials these whole 30 years in common pleas court,” Cooper said. “I think handling a jury trial, on the part of a judge, is probably the hardest, most complex thing a trial judge has to do.I’m going to be able to do that because I’ve tried over 50 jury trials, 12 murder cases, no matter what faces me, I will have had prior experience with it.”

John Kehoe

Someone who’s also been involved in the common pleas court already is John Kehoe, who has served as magistrate in the court for more than two decades.

“My boss is retiring,” Kehoe said of Judge Walton. “I’d been his magistrate for 22 years, so it seemed a natural step that I’d pursue his office.”

Kehoe graduated from

Ohio University and Ohio State University when he received a Juris Doctor degree in 1969.

Kehoe practiced law from 1971 until 1984, which he was named magistrate for the common pleas court by the late Judge Kenneth B. Ater.

In Ohio magistrates do virtually everything judges do, but their actions are subject to review and changes from the judge of the court.

That experience as magistrate, Kehoe said, may help the court to run efficiently.

“Since I have been a magistrate, the lawyers here have some idea what I’m going to do in a given situation,” Kehoe said. “So many of them will settle based on that. The experience I have makes the system flow smoothly.”

Although the judge typically handles the larger cases, Kehoe said the most important attributes of both that position and the magistrate should be the same.

“I think character is the key, the most important part of that being integrity, by which I mean a belief or adherance to a code of moral or ethical values hammered into me by my parents,” Kehoe said. “Also, I have a sense of fairness, a sense of fairplay.

“I think if you’re a fair man, you’re better able to judge. Doing the right thing is easy, but figuring out the right thing takes integrity and experience.”

Although Kehoe’s position as a magistrate gives him a unique advantage, he is perhaps hampered in that he can’t run a campaign based on cases won and lost. That forces him to run a platform based solely on how well he has performed his job.

“I can say that I believe that the punishment should fit the crime, but who isn’t going to say that,” Kehoe said. “But I’ve done a good job there, and I’ve played an important part in our system.”

Kevin Waldo

Kevin Waldo has his own sort of experience entering into this race. Just five months ago, he finished a hard-fought, yet unsuccessful run for the Ironton Municipal Court judge’s seat, held by O. Clark Collins.

“I feel like I should be worn down because a lot of time and effort and work went into the other race, but it’s actually enjoyable,” Waldo has previously said. “It’s kind of like I’m rejuvenated again. It’s a different opportunity and I’m looking forward to it.”

Waldo, 50, is a graduate of Ohio Northern’s law school. Practicing general law at his Ironton firm since 1980, he has served as an assistant Lawrence County Prosecutor for more than 17 years.

The decision to run for the seat was an easy one once he found out that it would become available, Waldo said.

“I felt like I had some juice in the tank, so to speak, when I got done with the last election, and I kind of felt like this was a natural extension from the last election, it was so close in time,” Waldo said. “I just really thought this was a great opportunity, and it’s a great position and I thought that I should do it even though it was so close to the other one.”

Whichever way it goes … it’s right

As the chairman of the local Republican committee, Ray T. Dutey is the man charged with keeping the peace among competing party members.

“It’s hard, you know, you’ve got friends who are for different ones, that’s what makes it fairly hard,” Dutey said. “That’s what we strive for, to keep unity amongst the three.”

Dutey said that in this area, some of the conflicts run beyond political differences.

“You’ve got families even, some are related to one, then another is for one of the other candidates.” Dutey said. “So to keep them happy when the election’s over … it’s not easy.”

Despite his hesitation, Dutey said that, judging by a recent Republican dinner, things seem to be going relatively smoothly.

“We had around 260 some people there, it went real nice,” Dutey said. “They all got along really good together.”

And of course, no matter which way things shake out, someone from Dutey’s team is still going to be in the judge’s seat.

“They’re all three good people, they’re well qualified, they’ve all got the experience to be a good judge,” Dutey said. “Whoever wins it I think he’s going to make a good judge.”

Justin McElroy is the news editor for The Ironton Tribune. He can be reached at (740)532-1445 x. 14 or at justin.mcelroy@irontontribune.com.