Court orders that Democratic challenger to Republican Jay Edwards be placed on the ballot

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — In a last-minute decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered that Democratic candidate Tanya Conrath be added to the ballot as a challenger to Republican state Rep. Jay Edwards.

Tanya Conrath poses for a portrait with her arms crossed
[Tanya Conrath | Facebook]
The court’s decision Tuesday came one day before both absentee voting and early in-person voting begin for the Nov. 8 general election.

Debbie Quivey, director of the Athens County Board of Elections, said her office was ready. It had two templates prepared for the company printing the ballots, one with Conrath’s name on it as the Democratic candidate for the 94th House District and one without.

“The ballots will all go out tomorrow with her name on them,” Quivey said.

The ballots for early in-person voting are printed at the elections office as needed, so there is no problem there either, she said.

Conrath won her case with a slim majority: Four of the court’s seven members joined the majority opinion and three dissented. In their opinions, the majority and dissenting justices took some pointed swipes at each other, including accusations of judicial activism and a lack of professionalism.

Conrath will now replace Ryhan Goodman, who was the Democrats’ initial candidate for the 94th District, which includes Athens, Meigs and Morgan counties and a portion of Washington County.

“Today is a banner day for democracy, freedom and choice,” Conrath said in a prepared statement. “What a relief to have the Ohio Supreme Court be the parent in the room and put a stop to this partisan bullying. The court stood up for democracy and will give voters in Athens, Meigs, Morgan and Washington counties a clear choice of candidates in November.”

Goodman dropped out of the race six days after the Aug. 2 primary election. The Democratic Party named Conrath to replace him on Aug. 15, the last day to name a replacement candidate under state law.

The two Democrats on the Athens County Board of Elections voted to accept the replacement, but the two Republicans voted against. This sent the matter to Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose to break the tie.

In his decision four weeks later, LaRose agreed with the Republicans that Conrath could not be named to replace Goodman until the election results were certified. This didn’t happen until Aug. 19, four days after the deadline to name a replacement candidate.

Normally these deadlines are not an issue. The primary is supposed to be held the first week of May, but this year it was delayed three months because of the conflicts over the effort to redraw the state’s political maps.

LaRose, a Republican, acknowledged the unusual situation this created, making it impossible for a replacement candidate to be named given that the vote certification came after the replacement deadline. But he said he did not have the power to change the deadlines, which are set by law.

Conrath filed a challenge to LaRose’s decision with the state Supreme Court. She argued there is nothing in state law that prohibits a replacement candidate being named before the official certification when the candidate being replaced was the only candidate in the primary, which was the case with Goodman.

The court majority agreed. In its decision, the majority said that LaRose’s interpretation of state election law “resulted in a legal absurdity, and moreover, it is contrary to our caselaw.”

That legal absurdity, the majority said, is that a provision in the law intended to allow parties to name replacement candidates was instead being read in such a way as to prevent this from being possible given this year’s delayed primary.

Election law should be interpreted with an eye toward providing voters with a meaningful choice, the majority said.

The majority also cited a Supreme Court decision in a case from Hamilton County, in which a political party named a candidate for the general election because the current office holder had resigned.

The court in that case said a candidate could be named even before the office is vacant in anticipation of the vacancy.

The same principle applies in Conrath’s case, the majority said. Goodman had not yet been certified as the primary winner, and therefore the official party candidate, when he withdrew. But given that he ran unopposed there was no question about the outcome and the party could choose his replacement in anticipation of this.

WOUB reached out to LaRose for comment but did not receive a response by the time this story was published.

He told NBC4 at a voter registration event Tuesday in Columbus that he disagreed with the court’s decision, but his office will follow the order and “had been working to help the affected counties in recent weeks in case the ruling fell this way.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon Kennedy said the election law provision that provides for replacement candidates is clear and unambiguous. Only an official party candidate can be replaced, Kennedy said, which means replacement cannot happen until after the vote is certified.

Kennedy, who was joined by justices Patrick Fischer and Patrick DeWine in her dissent, argued that the Hamilton County case involved a different set of circumstances and should not be applied in this case. She also argued the situation Conrath found herself in was caused by the late primary and not some absurd interpretation of law.

Kennedy accused the majority of ignoring the law and imposing the policy result it wanted. “In doing so,” she said, “it engages in a now all-too-familiar pattern of replacing what the law actually says with what the majority needs it to say to achieve the outcome it desires.”

In a separate dissenting opinion, Fischer said the majority created the problems caused by the late primary by repeatedly rejecting the Republican-drawn redistricting maps, which he said the court lacked the constitutional authority to do.

“To the extent that this case highlights any absurdity,” he said, “it is that this court’s insistence on not applying the language of the Ohio Constitution as written will ultimately result in the further desire to bend the language of the law to clean up the messes that this court has created.”

Fischer also took issue with the tone of the majority opinion, which he said was “insulting and inflammatory, beyond merely setting forth a differing view of the law.”

The majority bristled at accusations it was engaging in judicial activism.

“In short,” the majority said, “the dissents ignore that (the candidate replacement law) exists to enable replacement of a nominee and that this law should not be applied or interpreted to make such replacement impossible. Applying statutes consistently with precedent to serve their stated purposes is what this court strives to do at every turn.”