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Court News Ohio

Primary Election Loser Cannot Be Trumbull County Judicial Candidate This Fall

A candidate who lost in the primary election for an appeals court race cannot be her party’s candidate in the general election for a vacated common pleas court seat, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Sarah Kovoor is ineligible to be the Republican Party candidate for the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court seat that opened when Judge Peter Kontos announced he would retire from office. The Court rejected Kovoor’s argument that the state’s “sore loser” law did not apply to candidates whose party nominates them for the general election when an elected office suddenly becomes vacant.

The Trumbull County Board of Elections split 2-2 on whether Kovoor should be allowed to be a candidate for common pleas court in the November general election. She had lost the Republican primary in May for the Eleventh District Court of Appeals. Secretary of State Frank LaRose broke the tie on Aug. 31, stating that prior Supreme Court decisions and Ohio Attorney General opinions prohibited her placement on the ballot.

Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the opinion.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine concurred with part of the opinion and concurred with the judgment.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only.

Candidate Challenges Election Law
Kovoor lost the May 3 primary. Judge Kontos announced that he would retire in July. Because his announcement was effective 100 days before the Nov. 8 general election, the central committees of the Trumbull County Republican and Democratic parties were each responsible for selecting their party’s candidate to run for the remainder of Judge Kontos’ term. The GOP selected Kovoor.

Just days after the selection, the director of the county board of elections asked the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office for a legal opinion on whether Kovoor was permitted to run. The prosecutor stated that under R.C. 3513.04 – the state’s so-called “sore loser” law – Kovoor could not be a candidate after having lost the primary in a different judicial election in the same election cycle.

A registered voter had submitted a protest against Kovoor’s candidacy to the board. The board split 2-2 along partisan lines over certification of  Kovoor’s candidacy. The matter was submitted to LaRose, who broke the tie. As LaRose was considering the matter, Kovoor and the GOP members of the board of elections asked the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to place her on the ballot.

Supreme Court Examined Candidate Replacement Laws
Kovoor did not dispute that the sore loser law barred her from running as a common pleas court judge candidate in the 2022 election cycle. However, she argued that another law, R.C. 3513.31(I), overrides the sore loser law and allowed her party to nominate her for the office.

R.C. 3513.31(I) establishes the process for replacing an elected officeholder who dies or resigns during an election year. If the officeholder vacates the office more than 150 days after the primary but more than 86 days before the general election, the local county parties select candidates for the office.

Once the party selects a candidate, the law states, “Thereupon the name shall be printed as the party candidate under proper titles and in the proper place on the proper ballots for use in at the election.” Kovoor argued that sentence indicates the replacement law overrides the sore loser law because it mandates the board place the party’s candidate on the ballot.

The replacement law’s last sentence states, “If a person has been nominated in a primary election or nominated by petition under section R.C. 3517.012 of the Revised Code, the authorized committee of that political party shall not select and certify a person as the party candidate.”

Kovoor argued that sentence indicated the General Assembly did not intend to apply the sore loser law to primary election candidates who lost their party’s nomination for one office if the candidate is running for another office in the general election.

The Court’s opinion ruled that Kovoor was incorrect on both accounts.

The Court stated both laws must be read in context. R.C. 3513.04 refers to R.C. 3513.31 and states that “no person” who sought a party nomination at a primary election may become a candidate “by filling a vacancy under section 3513.31 of the Revised Code at the following general election for any office.” The opinion noted R.C. 3513.04 does have some exceptions for certain offices, mostly nonpartisan offices, but none of the exceptions applied to common pleas court races.

“If the General Assembly had intended to exempt vacancies arising under R.C. 3513.31(I) from the reach of the sore-loser provision, it could have expressly done so, just as it enacted exceptions for other offices,” the Court stated.

The Court also explained the last sentence of the replacement law prevents a political party from selecting the winner of a primary for one office to leave that race in order to be a candidate to fill a vacancy for another office. Kovoor implied that meant anyone else but the winner could be selected by the party.

Because lawmakers added another limitation to prevent a primary winner from switching races, that does not mean the sore loser provision is eliminated, the Court concluded.

In addition, the Court rejected Kovoor’s claim that the sore loser law is unconstitutional, and did not address the claim that the board of elections may have violated the Open Meetings Act when seeking the prosecutor’s advice about the candidacy.

2022-1055. State ex. rel. Trumbull Cty. Republican Cent. Commt. v. Trumbull Cty. Bd. of Elections, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3268.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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