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This Democrat won Ohio by 10 points in a year when Trump won by 8: Meet Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner

Jackie Borchardt
Cincinnati Enquirer
Ohio’s newest Supreme Court justice,  Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat who won statewide in an election where Republican Donald Trump won by 8 points, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, December 23, 2020 at her home.

COLUMBUS – Democrat Jennifer Brunner easily won a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court in an election where Republican Donald Trump won the state by 8 percentage points. 

Brunner, 63, beat incumbent Justice Judith French, a Republican, by 10 points, 55% to 45%. Her winning map stands out among others in recent years – she won Central Ohio, the counties bordering Lake Erie and the eastern edge of the state, which has become reliably Republican in recent years.

While name recognition likely played a role for the former Ohio secretary of state, she said it was also the relationships she's cultivated around the state that helped her win. When Brunner takes the oath of office Jan. 2, she'll be one of three Democrats on the seven-person court. Just two years ago, the court was 7-0 Republican.

The court weighs in on all sorts of matters that affect Ohioans' everyday lives, from blocking a state law barring red light cameras to striking down utility rate hikes. The court could also play a role in the creation of new congressional and Statehouse district maps being drawn next year. Under reforms in effect for the first time, the Ohio Supreme Court has jurisdiction over challenges to the maps state lawmakers and politicians propose.

Brunner,of Columbus, sat down recently for a Zoom interview with The Enquirer. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.  

Q: How do you think you won in an election where Trump carried the state by 8 points? 

A: I had kept a pretty good social media presence over the years and told myself I’d like to do a lot with video this time. Little did I know I’d have a chance to really do it. 

During the pandemic, we've been spending most of our time at our farmhouse in rural Northeast Ohio. Because of that, I have greater appreciation for why many people in the rural areas might feel disaffected. One thing is they don't have access to high-speed internet on a regular basis. I think sometimes they feel forgotten.

I also approached it with an 88-county strategy. We analyzed the primary election results to target which counties I thought that I could hold on to where I had more votes than my opponent did in the primary; and which counties I thought I could flip; which counties I thought I could at least lower the margin.

Q. Political pundits say you wouldn't have won if you had a D after your name on the ballot. Should justices run with a party label in the general election?

A: What I have seen is that when one party or another – but lately it's been the Republican Party – decides they want to change the rules of elections it usually backfires on them at some point in the future.

When you legislate for one specific scenario, you're probably going to be sorry later because the electorate does change. They may be sorry that a Democrat goes next to a judge’s name in the next 15 to 20 years.   

Q. What do you think your role will be on the court?

A: I will come in, tread lightly, observe, work to be collegial, and then see where I might be of greater service. I think that the court works better if the justices have decent personal relationships, so that they understand each other's points of view and what issues are important to them.

On the 10th District Court of Appeals, I was very concerned about the new record expungement law, search and seizure and failure in foreclosure proceedings. I think those will carry over to the Supreme Court and expand.

Gerrymandering was a big topic during your campaign. Do you think this next court will be "the gerrymandering court?"

A: I'd like to think that everyone will get along, and there won't be any need to challenge any plan that they devise. Worst case scenario, no one gets along, no one gives in, and there's just a four-year plan.

The court doesn't draw the lines but the court does review it for constitutional faithfulness. That was really what propelled me to step forward and run at this point in my life. Creating a fair review of this for the future is something good I can do for the future of Ohio.

It's the first decision that would be issued, according to these new formulas in the state constitution. It's the building blocks for any future decision.

Justices have helped tackle meaty reform issues in recent years, such as capital punishment and bail reform. What issue do you think is ripe to take on next?

A: How mental illness, substance abuse, trauma and racism factor into criminal behavior. What I saw when I was leaving the trial bench, was that there was always substance abuse or mental illness. And now there's also a focus on trauma and PTSD and what that does to interfere with recovery, or to interfere with how a person reacts to the police. All these things are there. They're sort of under the surface.

For instance, if someone flees because they've had bad experiences with the police, oftentimes it's going to be in the case law looked at as consciousness of guilt because it's sort of based on a reasonable person standard. And who is that reasonable person? More often than not, it is an older white man and how they would think.

Which life experience has shaped your judicial philosophy the most?

My parents were largely Republicans. When I was about 12 or 13, my father drove me to the less well-off areas of Columbus because he thought they had a skewed value system. He pointed out the run-down houses with expensive cars parked in front or big TVs in the front windows. He was trying to teach me a lesson but it kind of backfired. All I could think was somebody needs help. It guided me toward a social work and public service mentality.