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A Race Worth Running

I have sat back for the past several months and listened while citizens, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, and community advocates tell me what is the most important issue in my community. I generally disagree with them, to say the least. This has been especially disconcerting within the common pleas court judge debate, and arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the judicial system.

For each of these self-proclaimed pundits, their opinion is based upon their own personal interest. For example, to law enforcement, crime is the most important issue and takes precedent over any other issue. I think that is obvious and goes without saying; however, that does not mean it is my most important issue or even that it is the reader’s.

It is not my place or that of anyone else to tell the reader for whom he or she should vote. It is the object of this piece to inform the voter, not influence him or her; and to direct his or her attention to the facts that are important when deciding for whom he or she should vote for common pleas court judge.

Good Men for the Good Race

It is not enough to say that I hate running; I loathe running. I hated running to get in shape for sports, and even today, I hate running to try and get back in shape for living and being healthy.

The title and opening notwithstanding, this is not about the physical, exercise of running. I am writing about the upcoming election. Yard signs are out and visible. Commercials are playing around the clock, and annoying all of us incessantly. Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with opinions, anecdotes, and other partisan slogans that envelope us every couple of years. It is election season.

However, this election season is especially difficult because two good men – both of whom love this community – are pitted against one another for common pleas court judge. In one of the rare, non-partisan elections of the year, Robert Neff and Sean Leuthold are vying for the Honorable Judge Russell Wiseman’s chair.

Over the last several years, I have gotten to know these men relatively well. Mr. Neff was kind enough to offer me office space in the house that he and his father occupied for decades. In the corner of Rob’s office sits his father’s rocking chair, and I have spent several hours over several years sitting in that chair receiving invaluable and precious advice about the practice of law and life, in general.

Judge Leuthold has offered me countless opportunities in my career as an attorney, and provided me with guidance and direction in the courtroom. He is the type of judge who has never given a second thought to giving his time to young lawyers, and has always looked out for the community and the local bar. We share a love of history, and often find ourselves quoting Shakespeare, especially Julius Caesar in conversation.

I owe them both a great deal, and have nothing but kind things to say about them. Their hearts are in the right place, and both wish to do right by the law and the people of Crawford County. It is rare that this can be honestly written about two candidates, and we – as a community – are lucky that both of them care so much to throw their respective hats in the ring.

The Candidates

Rob – like his father, Robert Clark Neff, Sr. – is the consummate gentleman and legal scholar. His father practiced law in Bucyrus for nearly fifty years, and founded one of the only offices in the county preeminently rated by Martindale-Hubbell for its high ethical standards.

He graduated near the top of his class from Toledo University School of Law (Dean’s List, Law Review, and Order of the Coif – i.e. all the things I failed to accomplish in law school) and began his career as a judicial clerk, writing opinions for one of the oldest and most beloved jurists on the federal bench, the Honorable Judge S. Arthur Spiegel in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thereafter, he joined renowned plaintiffs’ attorney, Jim Helmer, and revolutionized federal whistleblower lawsuits by representing individuals against corporations - like General Electric – that were making defective equipment for the United States military. He even co - wrote a book on the subject, False Claims Act: Whistleblower Litigation. His fascinating career turned from big city, federal court litigation to the practice his father built right here at home in Bucyrus, when Robert Clark Neff, Sr.’s health began to fail and duty called Rob home to his side.

He served as the Bucyrus City Law Director, and also as Magistrate in the Crawford County Common Pleas Court where he was tapped to oversee the newly minted drug court. All the while, Rob served and continues to serve on countless local boards and committees. And, even after his father’s passing, he continues to operate The Neff Law Firm with the foremost integrity and dedication to the highest ethical standards.

Judge Sean E. Leuthold is also a Bucyrus native, and a graduate of Wynford High School. Judge is the consummate pragmatist and has a keen understanding of the realities of human nature. Before earning his law license, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service and attended Akron University School of Law, where he found his calling as a trial attorney and found success as a member of the moot court team.

He earned a job as a litigator and trial attorney with the prominent Reminger, Attorneys at Law in Cleveland. He practiced there until he, along with his brother, Shane, were offered a position with one of the oldest and most-respected firms in Crawford County – Kennedy, Purdy, Hoeffel & Gernert, LLC – where he continued to practice as a trial attorney, mostly in civil litigation.

The brothers eventually left Kennedy, Purdy, Hoeffel & Gernert, LLC and started their own law firm. Judge Leuthold, himself, practiced primarily in criminal defense until he took the bench as Crawford County Municipal Court Judge. As a member of the judiciary, Judge often speaks to local grassroots organizations, and has worked closely with local law enforcement in efforts to eradicate the plague of drugs in the community. He has successfully applied the creativity and resourcefulness that were the foundation of his practice to his time on the bench.

It Is the Race, not the Runner

This is a fascinating race because the use of normative terms like, “good,” or “better,” or “best” do not apply. Both candidates are well-qualified for the position, but bring two very different styles and backgrounds to the bench. Judge Leuthold brings a practical methodology to the court, and a background steeped in criminal and civil litigation. While, in contrast, Rob brings a more scholarly, contemplative approach and a background in complex federal litigation, business transactions, real estate and estate planning.

In this sense, it is not the men that we should be discussing when determining for whom we should vote in November; rather we should examine the job, itself and decide accordingly. The Common Pleas Court hears cases ranging from criminal to personal injury to real estate disputes to municipal annexation to commercial litigation, worker’s compensation and social security cases. Obviously, criminal cases gain the most attention and are often of greater public interest than any other on the docket. But those cases are merely a fraction of the docket.

The common pleas court judge’s opinion and authority is limited by law, rules of procedure, evidence and superintendence. For instance, in a felony criminal case, a common pleas court judge is limited by maximum and minimum penalties and sanctions that are prescribed by law for any given offense with which a person is charged. A judge is ethically prohibited from being an advocate and cannot make orders that violate individual liberties; instead, he or she is required to take into account all of the fact circumstances – including any mitigation, as well as the law of the land at the time he or she may be ruling. Consequently, a common pleas court judge cannot do what is “right” by an subjective standard; rather, he swears an oath, and is ethically and legally bound to follow the law in all cases.

The Good Judge

Judges must love the law and hold it above all else when they are draped in a black robe. Judges are not politicians, but disinterested and neutral parties to conflicts that arise in their county or jurisdiction. Judges should be teachers and scholars and writers, espousing the law in a clear, concise manner that can be understood by everyone.

They are the men and women we trust to decide our fate when our life, liberty, and property are in jeopardy. They do not write the law, but they interpret the law as written within the context of a certain set of facts. It is that simple. They apply the laws and the rules by which the legislature in Columbus and in Washington have determined we should live to the conflicts in our daily lives that we cannot resolve ourselves.

They believe in the majesty of our laws. They believe in the integrity of our courts. Judges were not and should never be degraded by party politics. It should not matter the political party; it should not matter the race, creed, gender, or religious affiliation – a judge speaks for the law, not for the people.

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