Kennedy pitches her case for chief justice election

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 29, 2022

Cites experience as asset

There will be three seats of the Ohio Supreme Court on this fall’s general election ballot, including the position of chief justice, and one of the candidates for that position made a campaign stop in Ironton on Thursday.

Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy visited a fundraiser at The Depot in Ironton, organized by Mike Finley, the Republican nominee running unopposed for Lawrence County Commission.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy speaks at a fundraising reception at The Depot in Ironton on Friday. Kennedy will face Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner on the fall ballot in the race for chief justice on the court. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Email newsletter signup

Kennedy, who will face Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner for the chief justice position, said the Finleys have become like “family” to her, since she came to Ironton in 2018 to swear in Mike’s daughter, Christen, as Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge.

She drew out a crowd of a few dozen officials and supporters for the event and, before she spoke, Kennedy met with The Tribune for an interview.

When asked why she is the best candidate for the job, Kennedy pointed to her long and varied career and accomplishments from it.

“I think if you think of three things that make me the best candidate, one is experience, two is my ability to collaboratively problem solve and the third is the ability to work within the time guidelines,” she said. “I have 37 years of diverse experience in the justice system. I began my career as police officer in the City of Hamilton, and then later served the needs of families and the less fortunate as a lawyer. Then I became a trial court judge in Butler County and had 14 years on the domestic relations court.”

As of December, Kennedy will have served as a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court for 10 years.

“Not only do I have a 360 experience in the justice system, I go back to that same resume about the things that I did to build collaborative solutions,” she said.

As an example, she pointed to work she did on her own time as a practicing attorney, collaborating with a juvenile court to create a life skills program.

“All of my clients exhibited or had an absence of life skills that my parents taught me, so we began a life skills program,” Kennedy said. “And then I would go to the detention facility and I would speak to young women – whether they were status offenders, getting ready to commit a misdemeanor or they were misdemeanants and getting ready to pick up a felony charge because they were progressing in crime — I can assure you that not one of those girls, when I did my seminar about ‘Where do you want to go?’ or ‘Where you want to be five years from now?’ None of them wanted to be in jail cell. All of them to aspire to be something else, so we created pathways of how you get there.”

Kennedy said, not just as a lawyer, but as a trial court judge, one has to have “the ability to help solve problems.”

She spoke her time as a judge on the domestic relations court during the economic downturn that began in 2008.

“You had so many people who were unable to pay their obligational support. So you had a choice as a judge – you could just simply issue an order and, every time, say ‘Go get a job,’ or you could realize the economy is at a place where it is not going to be easy for anyone to get a job.”

Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney Brigham Anderson gives an introduction for Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy at a fundraising reception at The Depot in Ironton on Friday. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

She said the next step was to create a program, something she did in Butler County, partnering with the Department of Job and Family Services in establishing one for non-support.

“And what we able to do is hire what I call an employment counselor,” she said, stating that this was a person ‘Everyone would be able to go see and talk about what the issues are.’”

“Sometimes, it was as easy as getting a car fixed,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes, you need workforce development issues and we could send you to a workforce training center. Sometimes, it was they had never done or completed resumes before — where I’m from, there are some who don’t read and write, so we would help them. And then, sadly, some have former convictions and were formerly incarcerated, so we partnered with an agency in Hamilton County that is solely focused on helping individuals with a felony conviction to find a job.”

Kennedy said during the same economic downturn, Butler County lost much of its tax base and she formed a budget work group, bringing in elected officials, county agencies and those from the business community to alleviate the problem.

She said the question before them was, “How did we get here, how do we build a stable financial plan?”

“So our last report to the county commissioners was literally a fiscal plan to get us out of the problem we were in and to save money for reserves so we can actually fix and maintain building and so we could grow a rainy day fund again,” she said. “And, in November 2019, a couple commissioners credited me with really stabilizing the Butler County fiscal situation. But it wasn’t me. I only gave them a plan — it was up to the commissioners to decide what to do.”

In her time on the Ohio Supreme Court, Kennedy pointed to her veterans’ initiative, Lean Forward.

“And that mission still continues,” she said. “On Nov. 17, we will have our eighth annual summit, “Lean Forward — Healing and Recovery.”

She said topics would include mental illness, substance abuse and they would have an expert speaking on new trends in PTSD treatments.

“And we will talk about where we are when it comes to alternative therapeutics — equine therapy, dog therapy, yoga and meditation,” she said. “We have judges coming in from around the state with a veteran who successfully passed their program, and they’re going to talk about what that alternative therapeutic did for them and share it with that broader audience of, not only judges, but practitioners as well.”

Kennedy said funding for the event is made possible by partnering with the Ohio State Bar Association, a criminal justice grant and help from Ohio Attorney General David Yost’s office. More information can be found at

She said that one portion of her experience especially prepared her for the duties of chief justice.

“For the last eight years of my service in the trial court, I was the administrative judge,” Kennedy said. “So the administrative judge performed all the executive tasks that a chief justice performed. Not only do they work with the staff, ensuring the timely resolution of cases, they’re responsible for HR issues — hiring, termination, discipline. They’re also responsible for all the other programs of the court and making sure the workers court is being facilitated. And the other thing you see a chief do in creating task forces and commissions is really trying to problem solve. That skill set, I think I have, based what I did as a lawyer, trial court judge and justice.”

Kennedy also said it is “very concerning” as she speaks to groups and forums, the number of people saying they’re unable to have cases heard with backlog of cases after COVID-19.”

“As chief justice, you really do have to go to counties and talk to them about where they are how they get caught up,” she said.

She said she would also bring a “different perspective” to the role of chief justice.

“In Ohio, we do not have a unified court system where there is a central figure that drives policy down,” she said. “For me I don’t believe that central Ohio has the corner market on great ideas. I think that, as the next chief justice, it is my duty and obligation to come here to Lawrence County to meet with your judges and say, not just ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘Where are we with cases?’, but ‘What do you see the needs of your community?’ and ‘How can I help you achieve what your community needs?’”

Polling has shown tight races for all three court seats for the general election, with Republican candidates having a slight edge, within the margin of error. In the chief justice race, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll, taken this month, had Kennedy leading Brunner, 42.2-41.8 percent.

When asked where she feels things stand, with the election a little over a month away, Kennedy said, “I think we’re in a great place.”

“I go somewhere every day — multiple places, to be honest,” she said. “You have good crowds like here tonight, or you go up to Wayne County, where we had 83 people turn out to hear me speak up there. We’re getting really great energy and I think we’re in for a good win.”

— The Tribune welcomes interviews with all statewide candidates.