State ex rel. Trumbull Cnty. Republican Cent. Comm. v. Trumbull Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 2022-1055

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Ohio
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM.
Citation2022 Ohio 3268
PartiesThe State ex rel. Trumbull County Republican Central Committee et al. v. Trumbull County Board of Elections et al.
Docket Number2022-1055
Decision Date16 September 2022

2022-Ohio-3268

The State ex rel. Trumbull County Republican Central Committee et al.
v.
Trumbull County Board of Elections et al.

No. 2022-1055

Supreme Court of Ohio

September 16, 2022


Submitted September 14, 2022

In Mandamus.

Kovoor Law, L.L.C., and Sarah Thomas Kovoor, for relators.

Dennis Watkins, Trumbull County Prosecuting Attorney, and William J. Danso, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, for respondents Trumbull County Board of Elections and Stephanie N. Penrose.

Dave Yost, Attorney General, and Julie M. Pfeiffer, Ann Yackshaw, and Allison D. Daniel, Assistant Attorneys General, for respondent Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

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PER CURIAM.

{¶ 1} Relators, Trumbull County Republican Central Committee and Sarah Thomas Kovoor, seek a writ of mandamus ordering respondents, Trumbull County Board of Elections and its director Stephanie N. Penrose (collectively, "the board") and Secretary of State Frank LaRose, to place Kovoor's name on the November 8, 2022 general-election ballot for the office of judge of the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas. Because R.C. 3513.04 bars Kovoor from being a candidate for the office she seeks, we deny the writ.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

{¶ 2} Kovoor was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican party's nomination for a seat on the Eleventh District Court of Appeals in the May 3, 2022 primary election. At some point after Kovoor's primary-election loss, Judge Peter Kontos announced his retirement from the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas, effective July 31, 2022. Judge Kontos's resignation created a vacancy on the common pleas court for an unexpired term.

{¶ 3} Judge Kontos's resignation was effective 100 days before the November 8 general election, triggering the application of R.C. 3513.31(I). Under that statute, the central committees of the Trumbull County Republican and Democratic parties were each responsible for selecting their party's candidates to run in the general election for the unexpired term of the judicial office vacated by Judge Kontos. On August 14, Kovoor was selected as the Republican party's candidate. Kovoor accepted the party's nomination.

{¶ 4} On August 16, Penrose emailed the Trumbull County Prosecutor's Office, requesting a legal opinion on whether Kovoor was permitted to run for the judicial office vacated by Judge Kontos. Penrose explained that R.C. 3513.04 appeared to disqualify Kovoor from running for the office because she had run unsuccessfully for a different judicial office in the May 3 primary. R.C. 3513.04 provides:

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No person who seeks party nomination for an office or position at a primary election by declaration of candidacy * * * shall be permitted to become a candidate by nominating petition, including a nominating petition filed under section 3517.012 of the Revised Code, by declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate, or by filling a vacancy under section 3513.31 of the Revised Code at the following general election for any office other than the office of member of the state board of education, office of member of a city, local, or exempted village board of education, office of member of a governing board of an educational service center, or office of township trustee

(Emphasis added.)

{¶ 5} On August 17, the prosecutor's office sent a letter to Penrose, opining that R.C. 3513.04 disqualified Kovoor from being a candidate for the vacated judicial office. Then, on August 18, a registered voter in Trumbull County filed with the board a protest against Kovoor's candidacy, also citing R.C. 3513.04.

{¶ 6} On August 19, the board held a special meeting to certify the candidates and issues that would appear on the November ballot. Two board members voted to certify Kovoor's candidacy, and two members voted against certification. The board submitted the matter to Secretary LaRose for his tiebreaking vote. See R.C. 3501.11(X).

{¶ 7} Relators commenced this expedited election matter on August 24, before Secretary LaRose announced his decision. In the complaint, relators pray for a writ of mandamus (1) ordering Secretary LaRose to render a decision immediately to break the tie vote of the board and (2) ordering the board and Secretary LaRose to certify Kovoor to the November 2022 general-election ballot.

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This court set an accelerated schedule for the parties' submission of evidence and merit briefs. 167 Ohio St.3d 1495, 2022-Ohio-2952, __N.E.3d__.

{¶ 8} On August 31, after respondents' answers were filed, Secretary LaRose voted against certifying Kovoor as a candidate. In a letter to the board explaining the rationale for his tiebreaking vote, the secretary noted that "[c]ourts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have reviewed [R.C. 3513.04] over the years and found that its language is straightforward, mandatory, and constitutional." The secretary concluded that because Kovoor had unsuccessfully sought a party nomination for a court of appeals' judgeship in the May 3 primary election, R.C. 3513.04 prohibited her from becoming a candidate for common-pleas-court judge in the November 8 general election.

{¶ 9} The parties have submitted their evidence and merit briefs, and the case is ripe for our decision.

II. ANALYSIS

{¶ 10} To be entitled to a writ of mandamus, relators must establish by clear and convincing evidence that (1) they have a clear legal right to the requested relief, (2) respondents are under a clear legal duty to perform the requested act, and (3) relators have no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. State ex rel. Linnabary v. Husted, 138 Ohio St.3d 535, 2014-Ohio-1417, 8 N.E.3d 940, ¶ 13. Because the general election is less than two months away, relators lack an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. See State ex rel. Finkbeiner v. Lucas Cty. Bd. of Elections, 122 Ohio St.3d 462, 2009-Ohio-3657, 912 N.E.2d 573, ¶ 18-19. For the remaining requirements, the standard is whether the board or secretary engaged in fraud, corruption, or abuse of discretion or acted in clear disregard of applicable legal provisions. State ex rel. Waters v. Spaeth, 131 Ohio St 3d 55, 2012-Ohio-69, 960 N.E.2d 452, ¶ 7.

{¶ 11} One aspect of relators' request for relief is moot. Relators' complaint sought, in part, a writ of mandamus ordering Secretary LaRose "to render

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a decision immediately on the tie vote" regarding Kovoor's candidacy. After the filing of the complaint, Secretary LaRose performed that act, thereby rendering that portion of relators' case moot. See State ex rel. Murray v. Scioto Cty. Bd. of Elections, 127 Ohio St.3d 280, 2010-Ohio-5846, 939 N.E.2d 157, ¶ 54. What remains for us to decide is whether relators are entitled to a writ of mandamus ordering the placement of Kovoor's name on the ballot as a candidate for Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas judge.

A. Text of RC 3513.04 Bars Kovoor's Candidacy

{¶ 12} Relators do not dispute that Kovoor is not permitted to be a candidate for common-pleas-court judge under a plain reading of R.C. 3513.04. That statute prohibits a candidate (with specified exceptions not implicated here) from running for an office in the general election if the candidate unsuccessfully ran for office in the preceding primary election. State ex rel. Brinda v. Lorain Cty. Bd. of Elections, 115 Ohio St.3d 299, 2007-Ohio-5228, 874 N.E.2d 1205, ¶ 26. "The language of R.C. 3513.04 is plain and unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning." State ex rel. Purdy v. Clermont Cty. Bd. of Elections, 77 Ohio St.3d 338, 340, 673 N.E.2d 1351 (1997). And under that "clear and definite meaning," Kovoor is barred from being a candidate for judge in the November election.

B. R.C. 3513.31(I) Does Not Override RC. 3513.04

{¶ 13} Despite the unambiguous language of R.C. 3513.04, relators argue that Kovoor's candidacy is not prohibited, because it involves a political party's choice of candidate for election to an unexpired term of office under R.C. 3513.31(I). That statute provides:

If a person holding an elective office dies or resigns subsequent to the one hundred fifteenth day before the day of a primary election and prior to the eighty-sixth day before the day of the next general election, and if, under the laws of this state, a person may be elected
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at that general election to fill the unexpired term of the person who has died or resigned, the appropriate committee of each political party * * * may select a person as the party candidate for election for such unexpired term at that general election, and certify the person's name to the appropriate election official not later than four p.m. on the eighty-sixth day before the day of that general election, or on the tenth day following the day on which the vacancy occurs, whichever is later. * * * Thereupon the name shall be printed as the party candidate under proper titles and in the proper place on the proper ballots for use at the election. If a person has been nominated in a primary election or nominated by petition under section 3517.012 of the Revised Code, the authorized committee of that political party shall not select and certify a person as the party candidate.

(Emphasis added.) R.C. 3513.31(I).

{¶ 14} Relators make two arguments that R.C. 3513.31(I) overrides R.C. 3513.04. First, they argue that neither the board...

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