Critics call 5th District Appeals Court judge's party change an 'effort to cling to office'

Being a Republican or Democrat should have nothing to do with how judges review and decide cases, Ohio 5th District Court of Appeals Presiding Judge Patricia Delaney says.

Yet using a 2-year-old state law that allows some judges to run based on party, she has chosen to run for reelection to her fourth term on the 5th District Court bench as a Republican — despite her 10-year voting record as a registered Democrat.

Her opponent, David Gormley, a Delaware County Common Pleas judge, has been a longtime Republican and has the endorsement of at least five of the district's 15 heavily conservative county Republican parties, including Delaware, Fairfield and Licking. He ran unsuccessfully for appeals court in 2016, losing to Earle E. Wise 52% to 47%.

Gormley's backers are furious, claiming that Delaney is using the Republican brand to attract voters that rarely pay attention to appeals court judges, their decisions or races.

Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge David M. Gormley
Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge David M. Gormley

"Don't let Patricia Delaney fool you," a recent campaign ad for Gormley declares. "She's a lifelong Democrat." The ad lists six elections from 2012 to 2022 in which she voted as a registered Democrat.

Matt Dole, Licking County Republican Party chairman, calls Delaney's party conversion "a clearly transparent effort to cling to her office" that she never shared with anyone in her new party.

"She didn't announce that the fog had lifted and she was seeing the world in a new — Republican light," Dole said in an email to The Dispatch.

When The Dispatch asked Delaney whether she signed a declaration in November changing her party designation either for political expediency or because her political philosophy had shifted, she replied: "I'm a Republican. I took out the form and deliberated with my family, colleagues and staff. I'm comfortable with the decision."

Delaney declined to further discuss her personal political philosophy or other social or partisan issues, other than to say that she, like much of her district, is fiscally conservative. Discussing her politics, she said, might violate judicial rules of conduct, specifically that, "A judge or judicial candidate shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary."

Party attachment has two sides

Some argue that keeping party labels off the ballot allows judges to be free of political interests, guided solely by the law. Others maintain that voters might want to know more about a judge's background to better understand how suited they are for the job.

An Ohio law enacted two years ago allows, but does not require Ohio Supreme Court justices or other judicial candidates in the state to include their political affiliation on a ballot.

Patricia Delaney, presiding judge of Ohio's 5th District Court of Appeals, is running in the Republican primary for reelection to her seat on the court, which is based in Canton and serves 15 counties -- including Delaware, Licking and Fairfield counties in central Ohio.
Patricia Delaney, presiding judge of Ohio's 5th District Court of Appeals, is running in the Republican primary for reelection to her seat on the court, which is based in Canton and serves 15 counties -- including Delaware, Licking and Fairfield counties in central Ohio.

Delaney pointed out that she didn't have to use either party tag. "I made a decision which I thought was in everybody's best interest," she said.

Part of her motivation, Delaney said, was maintaining the continuity and institutional knowledge on the 5th District appeals court that was seeing turnover of veteran members. Two of the six members of the appeals court — W. Scott Gwin and John W. Wise — are in their last year on the bench because of age limits and their seats up for grabs in this year's elections.

"I thought about retiring. But I also thought about who was running. I was on the fence," Delaney said. That was, she said, until she considered "there is a large learning curve" in the court, with a mastery needed in all disciplines of the law from domestic relations and juvenile cases to criminal and civil decisions, with "a lot of layers of experience needed."

While the 5th District appeals court has six judges, a three-member panel is randomly selected to review each case for errors and challenges by attorneys. The judges are paid $172,034 annually.

The 5th District has three open seats, each to be decided in the primary. All candidates are Republicans.

Aletha Carver, Jeff Farr and Robert G. Montgomery are squaring off for one seat. The other is contested by Dixie Park and Kevin Popham.

Delaney said her decision is "both tactical and what's in the best interest of the citizens of the district." Remaining an appeals court judge for another six years will allow her to continue mentoring newer judges and to share her 18 years of experience, she said.

"I don't think anyone comes to a court and wants the judge to make a decision based on their own political philosophy," Delaney said.

Dole disagrees, contending that bias can, and does, affect decisions.

"Republicans generally support a strict reading of the Constitution. Democrats — without promising any outcome — are generally more willing to help nudge the law to the left even if the legislature won't," he said.

Candidates changing parties happening elsewhere

Other judicial candidates, have also shifted parties in recent years. But in heavily Democratic Franklin County, they have shifted from Republican to Democrat in recent years. However, those moves have rarely incited anger or an advertising campaign.

Lawyers representing Delaney have threated to sue Gormley backers for defamation if they don't remove the "DemocratDelaney" ads, which they call "blatantly false."

Dole responded earlier this month with his own letter maintaining the attack ad is all true.

"This is not an instance where Ms. Delaney can magically turn herself into a Republican by twitching her nose," he wrote.

"Being a candidate in a Republican primary doesn’t make someone a Republican … It’s shocking to me (and will be to voters when we tell them) that Ms. Delaney doesn’t understand the difference."

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio elections: 5th District Appeals Court judge changes parties