There are a number of contested judicial races in Cuyahoga County this election year. At the same time, there is nationally more awareness of criminal justice issues, from city policing to the higher courts. Judges have a huge amount of power and influence in policies that are enforced and argued in our day-to-day lives.
And yet, so many of us do not pay attention to our local judicial races. Some of us may likely not vote in these races at all. I implore you to look deeply into the candidates for judge in your county and engage with this election in an informed way. To help you get started, I sat down (virtually) and spoke with William Vodrey, candidate of Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Vodrey is a qualified and passionate candidate who will bring extensive knowledge and expertise to the court, should he be elected. He absolutely has my vote this election.
J: Can you start by telling me a little about yourself?
WV: I’m a magistrate at Cleveland Municipal Court for the last 18 years now and before that I was an assistant county prosecutor in Cuyahoga County. Most of my work there was with victims of domestic violence, helping them get civil protection orders. I also worked on many city class action lawsuits regarding utility law that resulted in relief for thousands of Ohio consumers. What I would like to do now is take my experience, my skills, my passion and commitment to justice to a higher court.
J: Who is your opponent and what sets you apart from them?
WV: The Republican party had an earlier candidate who has withdrawn and his replacement by the GOP Central Committee is Kenneth Callahan. What sets me apart is my 18 years as a magistrate, doing the hard work of judicial officer. Most judges go their entire careers without having a case officially reported in the Ohio Precedent — I have had 21.
J: Why is political party important in judicial races?
WV: Ohio law is odd in that way — we have partisan primaries and nonpartisan general elections. I am proud to be a Democrat, especially this year when we have a President of the United States who is routinely attacking judicial independence and criticizing works of the court in very personal terms. I think it is very important people know that I am a Democrat, and that I do not at all condone or stand for the kind of attacks we see coming from the Republican party these days on independent judiciary, which is a vital part of American Democracy.
J: Judicial races get notably less press and attention compared to other local elections— why is it important that the community knows who they are electing into these seats? What role do judges play in our community and in our everyday lives?
WV: People ought to know because judges are among the public officials they are most likely to come into contact with in the typical person’s life. Judges have broad powers over people’s lives, liberties and properties in a way that most other public officials do not. Ohio elects its judges like the majority of other states do, but most people don’t know or, unfortunately, don’t bother to find out much about the judges who will appear on their ballot. There is usually about a 50% drop-off of people who vote for president or governor, but do not continue on to vote down-ballot. It is a vitally important job, and I think citizens ought to know who it is that holds this power in their lives under the rule of law.
To your second point— judges are people just like everyone else, and I am very proud to be involved in the community. I am involved in my church — St. Paul’s Episocopal Church in Cleveland Heights and have been for many years. I am active with the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. I serve on the character and fitness committee, which interviews people who want to take the Ohio Bar exam. We want to make sure people who go into the profession of law are well suited for it and don’t have significant personal problems that will hurt their own clients down the road. We see that their temperament, experience and education will qualify them to serve as lawyers.
I have also been involved for several years in the mock trial program at Shaker Heights High School, where all of my sons attended, and at Case Western Law School of which I am an alum. I have seen the difference mock trial has made in student’s lives — they learn to think on their feet, learn leadership skills, some even choose to go into law-related careers themselves. Too often, when we have mock trial sessions down here at the court of common pleas, it’s rare to see the judges of the court involved in the program. If I have the honor of being elected, I’d like to encourage my peers to get more involved.
J: Should you win, you will certainly enter this position while Covid-19 is still a serious problem. How will the pandemic inform or change the way you approach your job?
WV: I wish we all knew that. We are all still making it up as we go along. The Cleveland Municipal Court, where I am a magistrate, is open, but we are still not scheduling many in-person hearings. Of course, we are requiring masks, testing, social distancing and so forth. But, just like the rest of American society, we are still trying to figure it out. This is especially important with jury trials, which are vitally important to the American legal system. It’s hard to see how we will proceed with those at anything close to the level we had them before while also ensuring people’s health is protected. If I have the honor of being elected, I want to do my very best to see those rights are protected and that opportunity is offered going forward.
J: How do you intend to address the dire need for bail reform?
WV: I am a strong supporter of bail reform. I have been trained in the Arnold Foundation’s risk assessment tool, which our court has been using for several years now. It is a smart, data-driven way to make sure we are not making decisions on bail and bond based on people’s race or financial situation or anything not germane to their particular case.
We cannot, under any circumstances, criminalize poverty. Somebody who is not a flight risk and not a risk to someone else in the community, more often than not ought to be granted personal bond. That has been my approach for the last 18 years, and that is the approach I would expect to continue going forward.
J: What else would you like voters to know?
WV: I am very grateful for the support I have had in the community. I am proud of the endorsements I have had from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, a number of unions including the North Shore AFL-CIO, Plumbers Local 55, and many others. One of the great things about running for judge is that you get around in the community. You learn so much more about the 59 communities that make up Cuyahoga County and I have met people I never would have otherwise. It has been an amazing experience so far, and I would be honored to have people’s vote leading up to the November 3rd election. If people would like to learn more, I hope they’ll check out my campaign website which is www.votevodrey.com.
[Interview conducted by Jenna Thomas]