Reported and written by Signal Cleveland’s Rachel Dissell and The Marshall Project's Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg and Wesley Lowery
Few people in Cuyahoga County wield as much power over as many lives as the 34 elected judges who preside over felony cases. These Common Pleas judges consider the cases of thousands of people a year, making decisions about bail, plea deals and sentencing. They determine who feels the full weight of the law and who receives leniency.
But when it comes time for residents to vote those judges in — or out — of office, the people with the most at stake often don’t cast ballots.
Take Ward 5, a majority Black area about three miles east of Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center. In the past six years, an unusually high proportion of defendants listed the ward as their home address — the second-highest in the county. Yet just about a quarter of the ward’s registered voters marked a ballot for a judge in 2020. To put that into perspective, Ward 17 saw more than half of its registered voters cast a ballot for judge in 2020.
Attorneys, academics and people who have experienced the system firsthand offered fundamental reasons for low turnout: a glaring lack of useful information about how the courts operate and the individual track records of judges themselves, compounded by a deep distrust of the entire criminal justice system. That’s also what more than 40 residents told us in interviews conducted by the Cleveland Documenters, a group that pays people to attend local government meetings and gather civic information.
This story is published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
Christopher Thorpes, a community activist and lifelong resident of Ward 5, told The Marshall Project even though he has worked on political campaigns, he doesn’t vote for judges. Residents tell him, he said, that they know firsthand how unfair the system is, so why should they legitimize it? “Nobody wants to vote for a person who might end up locking them up,” he said.
Black residents of Cuyahoga County are arrested and sent to prison at disproportionate rates. To understand what role the court system — and its elected judges — play in these lopsided outcomes, The Marshall Project collected and analyzed more than six years of court data.
The Marshall Project spent months using tools to “scrape” the court records, one case at a time, from public internet dockets to assemble a database. We also compared defendants’ home addresses with county elections data to understand which voters were casting ballots in judicial races. We intend to use these analyses to answer questions we’ve gathered from community members and explore the points where injustice warps the system.
Here’s what we found:
- Court outcomes worsen existing racial disparities. Though Black people make up only about 30% of the county’s residents, almost two-thirds of the people who are arrested by police and charged with felonies by prosecutors are Black. Then, after judges impose sentences, state records show three-quarters of people in state prisons convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black.
- Individual judges make a big difference — for example, some judges almost never send defendants to prison for common charges like theft and low-level felony drug possession, while others incarcerate 30% or more.
- While Cleveland residents make up two-thirds of defendants in the court, votes from the city account for less than a quarter of those cast in judges’ races. That means the vote in the predominantly White suburbs in judges’ races effectively carries three times the power of the vote in the majority Black city.
- Voters have more power than they may think. If everyone who showed up to vote had cast ballots for judges as well, that could have swung the outcome in 9 of 15 contested judicial races since 2016 — without turning out a single additional voter.
Judge Brendan J. Sheehan, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, said there’s no straightforward way to determine the role of judges in sentencing disparities. “A wide variety of variables then comes into play with each case,” he said. “Simply put, there is a unique story behind each sentence that raw data cannot capture.”
Cuyahoga County’s voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the guilt or innocence of the county’s mostly Black criminal defendants. Of the 34 judges currently on the bench in Cuyahoga County, 30 are White and four are Black.
The disparity in power between county and city voters creates a big problem, because few judges on the ballot understand the experiences of people who appear in court — often people of color living in the city, said Erika Anthony, who co-founded Cleveland VOTES.
“Essentially, our bench is dominated by White, Westside Irish Catholic individuals,” Anthony said, referring to the county’s long tradition of electing judges with the same Irish and Italian surnames, like Gallagher and Russo.
Ohio, like most states, allows voters to elect its judges. Twice, in 1938 and 1987, attempts to switch back to an appointment system have appeared on the ballot, only to be soundly defeated.
But even after fighting to keep the right to elect judges, county voters consistently show up less often for judicial elections. Many judicial races in Cuyahoga County aren’t contested — 20 of the 35 county-level criminal court judicial races since 2016 had a single candidate. That often results in less participation in those elections and easy victories for incumbents.
“It’s almost impossible to vote out a judge,” said Jerry Primm II, who has managed and consulted on judicial campaigns and said there is an unwritten rule among local Democrats to never challenge a sitting judge. “And they know this. They’re keenly aware. They know they have that job for 30 or 40 years, depending on what their age is.”
Every voting precinct in Cuyahoga County — as they do largely across the country — sees a drop off in voting in judicial races. In November 2020, 29% of county voters marked their ballot for president, but not for judges. In a precinct in Cleveland’s predominantly Latino Clark-Fulton neighborhood, nearly half of voters who cast ballots in 2020’s presidential election left the judicial races blank. In contrast, in a precinct in the Ludlow neighborhood in suburban Shaker Heights, slightly more than 13% didn’t vote for judges.
It just isn’t possible for many voters to keep track of the multiple candidates and judges’ races, experts and civic leaders say.
A 2013 report by the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association concluded “it is hard to conceive how even the most industrious and conscientious voter could possibly collect enough information to make informed decisions” — noting that the county has nearly 100 judicial elections each six-year period, with every voter eligible to pick judges at the local, county and state level.
“Voters kind of lose heart after a while,” said Lawrence Baum, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University. The sheer number of judicial races and the fact they fall to the bottom of the ballot increases fatigue, he said, and sends voters on “a desperate search for relevant information.”
State and local nonpartisan groups have stepped up efforts in recent years to give voters more information on judicial candidates, Sheehan said.
“I want as many people as possible who are eligible to vote to do just that,” Sheehan said. “We should pursue all avenues to get those voters the information they need to make informed choices.”
Still, more than half of the 46 city and county residents interviewed by Cleveland Documenters said there wasn’t enough information available to help them decide which judges to vote for.
Those who voted for judges said they did research using campaign ads, news articles or websites like Vote411.org or Judge4Yourself.com, which rates candidates based on interviews with local bar associations. Often, those sources didn’t answer specific questions they had about candidates or measure how current judges were doing their jobs.
“I would like to know their records of how they sentence, and how strict they are, or how lenient they are, or if they are more prejudiced one way or another way,” said Sara R. Jackson, 79, of University Circle.
“There needs to be an unbiased committee, organization, agency or something that looks at their record –– reviews the judge’s performance,” said Donna Speigner, 56, of Warrensville Heights.
The chasm between who experiences the county’s criminal justice system and who elects its judges is most stark in Cleveland’s 7-V precinct, which includes the 350-bed men’s homeless shelter in a former metal sorting warehouse on a treeless stretch of Lakeside Avenue.
The downtown shelter makes this a unique voting precinct — many of the county’s people experiencing homelessness list it as their address both in court records and on voter registration forms. The precinct had by far the highest share of criminal defendants in 2018 and 2020 of any in the county, and also contributed one of the lowest shares of votes cast in judicial races.
About 80% of those homeless throughout the county are people of color. They also are highly likely to face the justice system, often for so-called poverty crimes, like falling asleep on a public bus, said Molly Martin, of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
But despite their frequent contact with the justice system, Martin said homeless residents may not pay close attention to local races for powerful justice system players such as judges and county prosecutors. (The last time there was a contested county prosecutor’s race, in 2016, it garnered even fewer votes than the average judicial race.)
“If folks don’t have a consistent phone, or are living in survival mode, they’re not thinking about the election,” said Martin, who has helped lead voter registration efforts across the city during recent election cycles.
But not all areas with substantial numbers of defendants have low rates of voting for judges. There are pockets in Cleveland and the suburbs that are home to more court defendants but also vote for judges at above-average rates.
The Clark-Fulton neighborhood is home to St. Rocco, a century-old church built by working-class Italian immigrants, known for producing lawyers and revered judges, like Salvatore Calandra, who sat on the municipal court for a quarter of a century.
Today, voters in the precinct where the church stands no longer turn out in force to elect judges. Nearly half of voters in the precinct who cast ballots in last year’s presidential election left the judicial races blank. More than 1 in 20 adults in this precinct appeared before a judge between 2019 and 2020, one of the highest rates in the county.
Latinos now make up more than half the population in the neighborhood; residents speak Spanish in most of the corner stores. County voters got access to bilingual ballots about a decade ago, but only after the U.S. Justice Department threatened to sue the county’s Board of Elections.
Still, many residents are new to participating in elections for city council, mayor, and judicial races, said Selina Pagan, director for the Young Latino Network. Many likely “don’t even realize that they have power to shift these dynamics within our court system” by voting for judges, she said.
Cleveland’s Latino communities are not a monolith, she said. Puerto Rican residents often voted at much higher levels on the island, but may not feel a part of democracy in Cleveland, she said. Residents from Guatemala, Colombia or Mexico sometimes live in households with family members who are applying for U.S. citizenship or who are undocumented and can’t vote, so that habit isn’t naturally passed on to children.
Pagan sees this dynamic in her own family. “I still have to jump through hoops to talk about this stuff with my family because it’s exhausting to them,” she said. “They don’t have any hope in the system.”
Few judicial candidates prioritize campaigning in the community, which is mainly in Ward 14, perhaps because of the historically low turnout, Adam Davenport, a neighborhood planner, said.
“I’ve been working in the neighborhood for over ten years, and I’ve had maybe two judges make active efforts to come to block clubs,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a judge, maybe one, that had any campaign literature in Spanish.”
Thorpes said judicial candidates also rarely show up in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, a majority Black stretch on the near east side of the city, which is thick with low-income housing complexes. He theorized that’s because voter turnout is historically low — less than 5% of registered voters in Central turned out in November’s mayoral election. That lack of engagement means fewer chances for residents to learn about the roles judges play in the system. Or to size up how the sitting judges have treated members of their community.
“If you want my vote, you need to get out. And you know what? Even let the people do a survey on you,” Thorpes said.
Common Pleas Judge William Vodrey, elected in 2020 after his second run, said he tried to campaign “anywhere I thought I might find voters,” whether the most affluent or the poorest neighborhoods in the county.
It was easier to do, he said, in places with already active Democratic ward clubs, most of which are in the suburbs. (Vodrey said he does remember attending one information session in Ward 5, which includes Central.)
Vodrey said he sent out some campaign mailers in Spanish and Arabic. “I don’t know how many voters that might have reached,” he said. “But I thought it was important to meet people where they were at.”
Residents in Central have some of the most pressing reasons to care about which judges are elected. About 1 in 8 residents faced charges before a judge in the past six years, and that experience ripples out into the community, to their families and friends.
It’s hard to expect people who are returning from incarceration or who have encountered police or courts to act alone to change the system, said Fred Ward, a founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Individuals Necessary Political Action Committee, which started interviewing and endorsing judicial candidates a little over a year ago.
It can be discouraging, he said, when formerly incarcerated residents see judges who they’ve found to be unfair get political endorsements and major party backing. “They don’t feel like they have a voice,” he said. Ward said that can shift with collective acti
Ward’s PAC campaigned against Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell, who lost two bids for the Ohio Supreme Court, based on his decision to acquit Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo. The officer stood trial after he and other officers fired 137 bullets into a car following a 2012 police chase, leaving two unarmed people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, dead. Ward’s PAC also pushed for Issue 24, a police accountability ballot initiative that passed in November.
“People in power only care about two things,” Ward said. “Whether you have the capacity to keep them in power or whether you have the capacity to take them out of power.”
Reporting contributed by: David Eads, Cleveland Documenter Kellie Morris, Michelle Pitcher, and Nicole Lewis.
Additional development by Aaron Williams.