Two Solon residents are vying for the nonpartisan seat on the General Division of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in the Nov. 3 general election.
Judge Wanda C. Jones will face Rick Bell, a former Solon City Councilman and Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor. Ms. Jones was appointed temporarily to the bench by former Gov. John Kasich to fill the spot of Michael P. Donnelly who was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2018.
The winning candidate will serve the court for the rest of Mr. Donnelly’s unexpired term, ending in 2023.
Both cite their experience in the court room as to why they should be elected.
“When you talk about experience, which is a big deal, there is a big difference between the experience of a prosecutor and the experience of a judge,” Judge Jones, 48, said. “I’m the only one in my race doing the job as a judge and have done it almost two years.
“I hit the ground running,” she noted, with the highest disposal rate at the end of last year in terms of resolving cases. “I am doing the job and doing a good job at it,” she said.
Mr. Bell, 57, who serves as chief of the Special Investigations Unit, noted he has practiced for 30 years, trying over 100 cases in felony trial court and in front of most of the judges.
“I know the court very well and believe I will be very good at resolving conflicts,” he said.
During his tenure, Mr. Bell has tried some of the biggest, most high profile cases in Cuyahoga County, including the Western Reserve Shooter, solving the Gloria Pointer murder, a cold case, and the Michael Brelo murder case, among others.
Mr. Bell, a Democrat, also founded the first-ever cold case unit in a prosecutor’s office in the nation, solving over 900 sexual assault cases and dozens of cold case murders using DNA evidence.
A Republican, Judge Jones said she also adds diversity to the bench. She is one of only four African American judges of 34 on the county’s general division bench.
“In a county where people are screaming for change, fairness and a voice, it is important to have representation,” Ms. Jones said, and that includes all women.
“There is a serious lack of representation,” she said. “The bench should reflect the people who come in front of it in some degree. It is those life experiences that bring diversity of perspective and problem solving.”
Mr. Bell, who won the Democratic primary earlier this year against Anne C. McDonough and Jennifer O’Donnell, said he has always let the facts guide his decisions. He would bring a calm demeanor and strong reputation to the bench, he said.
An advocate for women and children, Mr. Bell said some of the greatest accomplishments in his legal career were in fighting human trafficking as part of his role as the supervisor of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. More recently, he has led a rape kit task force at the county, which has tested all of the forgotten rape kits that have sat on police shelves.
“I am the eighth of 10 children and I have 7 sisters and three daughters, so I have become aware of how devastating some experiences can be for people,” he said. “I have fought hard to advocate for women and children.”
Judge Jones, who was a volunteer magistrate for the Solon Police Department when she had her private family and civil law practice on Bainbridge Road in Solon prior to serving the court, said she has learned a great deal in these past two years on the bench as well as contributed to change.
After her first trial, she attended a commander’s meeting of the Cleveland Police Department to discuss with them some of the things she saw that could impact the fairness of a trial. For example, in her first trial, there were 21 body cam videos turned over the morning of the trial, she explained, which created an unfair situation for the defense.
To remedy that, she implemented changes to procedures in her courtroom about how discovery is handled and documented for the record to ensure fairness.
“As time goes on, my plan is to improve that even more, so you can’t go in like a wrecking ball,” she said. “This is about changing the culture and behavior.”
Judge Jones also began a mentoring program for individuals on probation and partnered with certain schools in the Cleveland area for students to shadow in the courtroom. She has participated in court in the classroom where she would visit various schools in East Cleveland.
“The kids loved it,” she said.
Mr. Bell has argued for the court’s bail reform and if elected, promises that he would keep a sentencing database that would keep statistics on sentences to shed light on a disparity. His initial goals on the bench would be to deal with the “immediate crisis” involving the log jam of cases due to the COVID-19 outbreak that created a back log.
“We have to find a safe way to open the courthouse,” he said.
Longer term, Mr. Bell would work to open centers for drug addicted individuals and people with mental illness so they would not be booked in the centralized jail. Another long-term goal involves the potential of a new justice center in downtown Cleveland and finding a way to handle cases more efficiently, he said.
Judge Jones sees as a highlight of her law career, her work as a guardian at litem, in which she represented the best interests of a minor child in legal proceedings.
“I’m very proud of that work,” she said, “representing people who are not able to speak for themselves.” She served that role in juvenile court and also represented children in domestic relations court in both Cuyahoga and Summit counties.
Mr. Bell, who graduated from Cleveland Marshall College of Law, said the major influences in his life are his family, his parents and his faith. He and his wife Dr. Andrea Bell have four children. His judicial role models are Judges Pamela Barker, Christopher Book and Patricia Gaughan, all of whom always meet with lawyers and resolve conflicts peacefully and with kindness, he said.
Judge Jones and her husband Carl have six children. She said her major life influences are her mother and grandmother, who instilled in her a strong work ethic. Her judicial role model is the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had an approach to getting improvements that ensured the rights of everyone, Judge Jones, a graduate of Cleveland Marshall College of Law, said.
Mr. Bell said his work on Solon City Council, where he represented Ward 1 from 2010-2015, has also prepared him for the judicial seat and helped define his style of leadership.
“On council, we worked together for the good of the entire city,” Mr. Bell said, “and as judge, I’m confident I will be able to work with everyone.”
Mr. Bell, whose major endorsements include the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, Solon Mayor Edward H. Kraus and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, among others, said that people want transparency in the court, for judges to be fair and to treat everyone equally. He also said he has enjoyed throughout his career training hundreds of young lawyers. He sees the judicial seat as an opportunity to continue helping them.
Judge Jones has received major endorsements and excellent ratings from various associations including the Cleveland Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association.