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January 25, 2008

The L word enters Wisemans judicial

Dayton--If the primary election challenge to Ohio’s first openly lesbian judge had nothing to do with her sexual orientation before, it does now.

During an endorsement interview with the Dayton Daily News, Mary Wiseman’s challenger, James Piergies, said that she should not hear cases involving Ohio’s same-sex marriage ban amendment or Dayton’s new human rights ordinance, because she is lesbian.

Both candidates for the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court were present at the January 16 session with the Daily News editorial board.

Wiseman was appointed to the seat in October by Gov. Ted Strickland to replace a retiring judge.

Piergies is a Montgomery County District Court judge. His court, located in Huber Heights, handles cases similar to municipal courts in many communities.

Piergies, Wiseman, and Frances McGee were recommended to Strickland by a judicial appointment panel last year to fill two openings on the Montgomery County bench.

McGee and Wiseman were chosen by the governor. Piergies, with close ties to organized labor and union members, was not. McGee is unopposed in the March 4 primary.

Piergies decided to run against Wiseman in the Democratic primary, creating an intra-party judicial challenge that is very rare. The winner will face Republican Margaret Quinn in November.

Piergies told the Gay People’s Chronicle for a previous report that his candidacy is all about experience. He has been on the part-time District Court bench for 13 years.

“It’s available,” said Piergies of the seat currently held by Wiseman. “It’s something I need to do.”

Wiseman said that during the Daily News editorial board interview, reporter Lynn Hulsey asked if the judge would have the potential to hear cases involving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Wiseman said yes, and Piergies protested, saying that it would not be appropriate.

Piergies said that Wiseman’s sexual orientation and her attempt to pass an LGBT anti-discrimination law when she was on the Dayton city commission in 1999 would create an ethical problem for her.

Wiseman responded that if that were the case, then Thurgood Marshall would never have been able to rule on a civil rights case.

Marshall was the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice, appointed after he successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ended racially segregated schools.

As a justice, Marshall heard civil rights cases based on Brown.

Wiseman said other questions asked by the Daily News editorial board were designed to assess the candidates’ experiences and qualifications.

One was about the importance of diversity on the bench.

“Diversity on the bench should be important, even if it is not to advantage in a political race,” Wiseman later told the Chronicle.

She spoke of the opportunity she has to talk about her life and qualifications because of her appointment.

“I probably would not have been in line without Strickland’s process,” Wiseman said.

The governor has taken much of the political maneuvering out of appointing judges, sometimes to the displeasure of county political parties.

The governor created the Ohio Judicial Appointments Recommendations Panel, with eleven members representing the regions of the state, legal professionals and various interest groups.

The panel screens and checks the qualifications of candidates from lists made by the political parties, then makes a recommendation based on merit.

Piergies’ statements drew fire from the Dayton legal community after they appeared in the Daily News.

“If people of good will are going to stand by when this sort of thinly-veiled bigotry is thrown out and traded upon, then where are we?” attorney Steven Dankof Sr. told the newspaper.

Dankof accused Piergies of violating the canons of judicial conduct and asked the Ohio Bar Association and the Dayton Bar Association to take a public stand against the statement.

The Dayton Bar Association views its role in judicial elections as promoting public education. Its director, Bill Wheeler, said his organization would not be rating candidates in the primary election, but sees no problem with a lesbian judge hearing cases concerning LGBT rights.

Dayton Bar Association president Michael Krumholtz wrote in a letter to the Daily News: “All judges take a solemn oath to follow the dictates of the law in the observance of their judicial duties and to refrain from making decisions based on their personal background, religious beliefs, political viewpoint or lifestyle.”

“For our judiciary, this is their most sacred promise. It is the commitment that their decisions will be based on legal principles as opposed to personal choice,” Krumholtz wrote.

On Sunday, the Daily News endorsed Wiseman.

“Gov. Strickland was right to choose Wiseman. This contest is not close,” said the paper.

“Judge Wiseman has received much attention as the first openly gay person to serve as a judge in Ohio. She does not shy away from attention. She believes gay men and women should see her success as evidence of their ability to break through barriers,” the editorial continues. “But she--rightly--does not see her sexual orientation as a factor in her ability to make sound judicial decisions.”

The endorsement noted that Piergies’ argument against Wiseman hearing LGBT cases is “weak.”

“With the help of organized labor in a Democratic primary, Judge Piergies might be able to wage a potent campaign against a young, capable jurist,” the Daily News continued.

“Mary Wiseman should not lose this contest. She has proven her clearly superior qualifications in an impressive career in both public and private work,” it concluded.


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