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Judge Hoover laments partisan influence before facing GOP in general election

Stow Municipal Court Judge Kim Hoover

Associated Press

Published: October 18, 2013

After 18 years on the bench, Judge Kim Hoover considers himself as much of a teacher and farmer as a jurist. He also considers himself a Republican despite the fact he must face the GOP to retain his position in November’s election.

After the Summit County Board of Elections unanimously approved Judge Hoover’s right to run as a nonpartisan for reelection at the Stow Municipal Court, he said he hopes to run on his experience and accomplishments on the bench in the face of a concerted Republican effort to replace him with county judicial attorney Kandi O’Connor.

“If you’re a brand new person trying to do this and you’ve never been a candidate, it’s very difficult to run without party affiliation,” Judge Hoover said. “But as an established incumbent, I think I have a better shot of overcoming that, even though it’s a great disadvantage.”

Though he ran without party affiliation in all three of his electoral victories, he has served on the bench since 1995, when the court existed in Cuyahoga Falls. Since then, he helped the court transition to its $9 million courthouse and turn its million-dollar deficit into a profit – a rare occurrence in similar-sized courts. He said he plans to continue to pay down the court’s construction bill – now down to $6 million – without the use of taxpayer money.

Throughout his time on the bench, Judge Hoover said his base pay has never increased.

The veteran judge started his career as a young lawyer with Sanders, Hoover & Leipply, which included David Sanders, who served as mayor of Cuyahoga Falls, and 2013 Akron Bar Association Professionalism Award winner Gerald Leipply [see below] as well as Judge Hoover’s father.

Throughout the past year, Judge Hoover said he devoted much of his time running the recently implemented separate training classes aimed at drug abuse, theft and low employability.

“Our hope is to try and get to people before they get themselves too deep in the system,” Judge Hoover said.

Perhaps Hoover’s most well known project is the court’s miniature farming operation, which provides a way for Judge Hoover to oversee community service on plots of vegetables within sight of his chambers’ windows. Last year the small farm, which uses confiscated marijuana grow lights to grow seedlings, produced over 2,000 pounds of vegetables for the local charities.

“I wanted to find something where they could feel good about themselves, maybe learn a skill,” Judge Hoover said. “To me it seems like a waste to have public lands that aren’t producing anything for the public.”

Judge Hoover said several offenders who toiled on the farm returned to volunteer – and some even left with extra plants as gifts from the court.

Since the program began three years ago, Judge Hoover said about 20 courts have inquired about starting similar programs, including the Summit County Juvenile Court, which launched its mini farm this year.

Ohio judges also seemed to take an interest in Judge Hoover’s “rare maneuver” of simply registering as a nonpartisan in response to a recent change in state law requiring partisan primaries in judicial races. Because of a distinction drawn between nonpartisan and independent candidates in a 2011 2nd District Court of Appeals case (State of Ohio ex rel. James R. Livingston v. Miami County Board of Elections), Judge Hoover freed himself from the “non-affiliation” requirement that applied to independents.

“As soon as I did it, I probably had six to 10 judges around the state calling me,” said Judge Hoover. “They said, ‘Can you do that? I was forced to hire two probation officers I can’t afford to keep my party from running someone against me in the primary!’”

“I said, ‘Why would you guys do something wrong to cater to a political boss?”

Though Judge Hoover said his personal politics tend to align with the Republican platform, he said the rift between him and the county GOP dates back to before he took the bench. He said the driving force behind his decision to run sans party backing, though, stems from a fundamental belief that partisan politics should not infiltrate the judicial branch of government.

“The concept of politics in justice offends me on every level,” he said.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor agrees, and she spent the past year campaigning for judicial election reform, a portion of which calls for an end to partisan judicial election.

“[N]onpartisan elections could help protect judges from partisan political influences that could compromise the independence of their judgments or create the appearance of such a compromise,” Justice O’Connor wrote in her reform plan. “Parties can exercise great power over judges elected in partisan elections by wielding control over the nomination process and influence over general elections.”

Ohio is the only state that holds partisan primaries for judicial races followed by nonpartisan contests in general elections –a concept Judge Hoover finds “ridiculous.”

Summit County Court of Common Pleas Magistrate Kandi O’Connor, Judge Hoover’s only opponent in the upcoming election, received the Republican nomination but said she shares Justice O’Connor’s attitudes on judicial politics.

“Personally I think we should all run without a “D” or an “R” associated with us,” O’Connor said. “He researched and applied the law that’s out there. Good for him.”

Judge Hoover, who first arrived to the bench by an appointment from Republican Gov. George Voinovich, stressed he never bases hiring decisions on politics, and party affiliation simply does not come up in the day-to-day operations of his court. Though he received endorsements from various members of both parties, including Democrat Summit County Executive Russ Pry, he said he makes an effort to avoid making references to partisan politics during his campaigns.

Among the consequences of the politicalization of the judicial branch, according to Judge Hoover, is the rise of “purely political appointments from people who have not been attorneys and not been in the system.”

Judge Hoover said the root of the problem lies in the increasing polarization of American politics, which can be seen from Summit County to Capitol Hill.

“There seems to be very little civility or crossover, and the person who has the courage to cross over is generally characterized as a renegade or traitor by his or her party,” he said.

“We as a people need to mature and recognize that there are good ideas on both sides of the aisle. I think we’re less willing to do that all the time because it sounds like a weakness.”

Whatever the future of Ohio judicial election laws may bring, Judge Hoover said he would support and enforce any laws the people enact. He will continue, however, to do everything within his power to keep partisan politics out of his courtroom, he said.

“I hope there will be 100 judges who say ‘I’m doing this the Hoover way – I’m not doing this the partisan politics way,’” he said.

“It’s not healthy for courts. There’s a place for parties and a place for politics. A place where it does not have anything but a negative tint is the court system.”