The law makes a promise—neutrality. If the promise gets broken, the law as we know it ceases to exist. All that’s left is the dictate of a tyrant, or perhaps a mob.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

How Judicial Elections Began

In the early days of our country, judges were selected primarily by partisan appointment. The party in power would determine who would “fairly, impartially and independently” administer justice.

Between 1846 and 1860, however, reformers across the country sought to have judges popularly elected. It was argued that judicial elections would have many benefits, including:

  • Reducing political parties’ power and increasing the independence of the judiciary;
  • Increasing the respect of the judiciary;
  • Increasing judges’ ability and interest in reforming judicial processes; and
  • Increasing the power of the citizenry to hold judges accountable

Ohio changed to contested judicial elections in 1851 and to its current system of contested partisan primary elections and contested nonpartisan general elections in 1912.

Role of the Judiciary

The court system settles disputes between citizens in a fair and impartial—albeit adversarial—manner. The judiciary also serves as a “check and balance” on the executive and legislative branches, ensuring the separation of powers and resolving constitutional challenges.

However, as Chief Justice Thomas Moyer of the Ohio Supreme Court has noted, “We know that almost from their creation, the courts have been criticized for their judgments. That is a part of life in a democracy. It is a rare court decision that does not displease someone”.

The American Bar Association describes the U.S. judiciary as an integrated system involving the state and a federal judiciary. Each system has well-defined responsibilities. Approximately 98 percent of all cases that affect people’s day-to-day lives, such as property and family-related issues, take place in state courts. Cases that fall under federal jurisdiction involve issues “larger” than those in state courts. Examples of these cases include those involving the U.S. Constitution, U.S. government, and multi-state issues. In a few areas, such as drug crimes, state and federal jurisdictions overlap. To learn more see the American Bar Association’s publication: How Courts Work.

Structure of the Judiciary

Ohio’s judicial system includes:

  • Two appellate courts
    • The Supreme Court of Ohio (7 members)
    • 12 Courts of Appeals (68 total members)
  • Three trial courts:
    • 88 Courts of Common Pleas (each including a general, domestic relations, juvenile and probate division with a total of 387 judges)
    • 125 municipal courts (208 judges)
    • 41 county courts (47 judges)
  • One court of claims:
    • Judges—often retired—are assigned by the Chief Justice
    • Presides over suits against the state involving such things as property damage and crime victims’ compensation
  • Approximately 329 mayor’s courts


The most recent demographic overview of the Ohio judiciary was compiled in 1999, when the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness, commissioned by the Supreme Court of Ohio and the Ohio State Bar Association, surveyed Ohio judges and attorneys. Four hundred thirty-six judges responded to questions about race and gender.


  • 96% white
  • 3% minorities, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans
  • 1% unknown


  • 83% male
  • 17% female

Want to Learn Even More?

You may also wish to visit the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Visitor Education Center, located at 65 S. Front Street in Columbus, Ohio. The Center is “designed to provide both adult and student visitors with an understanding and appreciation of the history, role and responsibility of the Ohio court system.” Visits are scheduled Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 614-387-9223 or e-mail