In writing an endorsement of Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Christian, the difficulty is in knowing where to start because there are so many good things to say about her. But let’s start with this:
“Judges wear legal professionalism and precedent as a mantel that secures legitimacy for their decisions.”
Those are the words of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, words that succinctly express two of Judge Christian’s greatest qualities as one of Mahoning County’s current common pleas jurists: She is the consummate legal professional, and she is a remarkable student of the law (especially having graduated with distinction in the top ten percent of her law class at Ohio Northern University – whoever said “A” students become judges was right).
Now before presenting just a few of the many reasons why Judge Christian’s accomplishments as a common pleas judge have earned her the privilege of remaining on the bench, a few words about her opponent are in order. You might be familiar with him if only because of the ubiquitous yellow and black yard signs displaying only his last name: D’Apolito.
No, he’s already on the Common Pleas bench and his term doesn’t expire for two more years.
Well, it could be, but he doesn’t need all those signs because re-election to the county court bench in Austintown is not a county-wide race and he’s running unopposed.
No, a retired superintendent of operations for the Mahoning County Sanitary Engineering Department, he lost the Democratic primary for county auditor to Mike Sciortino in 2010. He terminated his campaign fund two years later and ain’t runnin’ for anything now.
Nope. Not him either. He works in the City of Youngstown’s law department monitoring the City’s contracts and his name isn’t on any ballot. Well, not his first name anyway.
It’s funny, but there are so many D’Apolitos in the public eye that The Vindicator ran a photo of the wrong one (it appeared to be Youngstown Kiwanis President Tony D’Apolito) on page A3 of the Friday, October 28th edition where they published a profile of the two common pleas candidates. This suggests something of a very real issue of voter confusion in this down-ballot race. There are a lot of voters who will simply vote for the name they recognize by the time they get to a race such as this on their ballot (common pleas is on page two of a six-page ballot in my precinct). Judge Christian’s opponent has already received the benefit of such confusion from one early voter who confided to my wife that she saw the last name and not the first and cast her ballot for whom she thought was her husband’s old schoolmate, Lou.
So, if you can’t swing a dead cat in Mahoning County without it landing on a D’Apolito, then which one is running against incumbent Judge Christian? The answer: Juvenile court magistrate Anthony D’Apolito.
The D’Apolito family should be praised for their commitment to public service. They could start their own version of Blue Bloods in Mahoning County. However, the concentration of influence in government offices, departments, and services by a single family, like it or not, makes some people reasonably nervous. Should Anthony be elected to Common Pleas where he would join his father Lou, 40 percent of the Mahoning County’s Common Pleas judicial roster would be comprised of judges from the same immediate family.
While Anthony D’Apolito is still living with the embarrassment of having a registered sex offender drive a vehicle for his campaign in last summer’s Struthers July 4th parade, his presentation to neighborhood groups on the current effectiveness and efficiencies of the juvenile system in Mahoning County – where he serves not as a judge but as a magistrate – is impressive. It leads one to the conclusion he should continue his good work at juvenile court under Judge Theresa Dellick who is also running for re-election. They apparently make a good team, and by voting to retain Judge Christian the public can keep a successful juvenile team in place while retaining an excellent common pleas jurist. Everybody wins.
Which brings us back to Judge Shirley Christian. She was appointed to the bench (over Anthony D’Apolito and two other candidates) when the late Judge James C. Evans retired from the bench two years ago prior to the expiration of his term. During that time she has reduced the docket by over 36 percent which speaks volumes about her ability to run an efficient court. It’s a testament to her keeping the gears of justice in motion as well as a sober reflection on her acknowledgement of the real impact the court has on real lives. She has already resolved two thousand cases in her court since being sworn in.
Judge Christian has established a veterans treatment docket to handle certain felony cases for military veterans. She recognizes that the price for some of the men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for their country has been to return to civilian life only to tragically fall into homelessness, despair, and a pattern of criminal behavior. And she sees that real solutions to this problem transcend ordinary incarceration and instead require a structured and meaningful way for the court to assist troubled veterans in rebuilding their lives.
Judge Christian believes it is the work of the court to educate the public on how our system of justice functions. To that end she has engaged in public outreach to demystify the judicial system, particularly the role of the grand jury. Her presentations to local service organizations and neighborhood groups are an excellent effort to help reduce misunderstandings and increase public confidence.
Judge Christian is also an experienced trial lawyer, having spent nearly 28 years in front of the common pleas bench handling and litigating complex matters numbering into the hundreds. These are serious, adult matters requiring serious, adult resolutions. As Judge Christian has often said at forums and neighborhood gatherings, “Experience at this level matters.” And voters have a golden opportunity to retain this valuable experience on the bench.
Perhaps no better praise of Judge Shirley Christian has been offered to her than that of the longest-tenured judge on the Mahoning County Common Pleas bench, R. Scott Krichbaum, who before Judge Christian was sworn in said: “It’s a great day for justice in our county. She has a wonderful background in experience – a real trial lawyer. Her confidence is unmatched. She’s a perfect choice for this position.”
True then and even truer now, the clear choice in this election comes down to the person who is already on the bench, incumbent judge Shirley Christian. Her efforts to protect, inform, and shape a stronger community coupled with the comprehensiveness of her courtroom experience not only serves her well as a judge, but also serves the cause of justice well in Mahoning County.
There is only one Judge Christian, and she has certainly earned the privilege of being retained for a full term on the Mahoning County Common Pleas bench.