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.
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
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.