Judge Joseph Russo: What's the advantage of name recognition?

“Electing judges is a catastrophe!” says Sara Schiavoni, a political science professor at John Carroll University. Schiavoni specializes in the courts, with particular expertise in how judges are selected.

According to Schiavoni, Ohio is the only state in America that elects judges using a partisan primary and a non-partisan election. Because of this, people don’t know how to vote. This can result in judges being elected just because they have recognizable names. In Cleveland, if you have an ethnic name, specifically Italian or Irish, you are almost guaranteed to get elected, Schiavoni says.

To see examples of this, go to the list of judges in Cuyahoga County’s Common Pleas Court. The extensive number of Corrigans, Gallaghers and McSomethings, not to mention four Russos, is clear from the alphabetical list.

One ongoing experiment is the case of Cullen Goretzke. In the last election, he couldn’t beat Robert McClelland for a Cuyahoga County judgeship, but this year he might. Although Goretzke has not changed any of his views or beliefs, he has changed his name. After marrying his wife, Ann, he took her name and is now Cullen Sweeney. This name has much more ethnicity and, if Schiavoni’s theory is correct, promises a better chance to beat the incumbent. The outcome of this particular candidacy could demonstrate the problems with judicial elections in Ohio, said Brent Larkin, columnist and past editorial page editor for The Plain Dealer, in his Sept. 22 column.

Although this is broadly stated, the theory is justified not only by the list of names in the system, but also by careful academic studies going on within the Ohio judicial court system, says Schiavoni.

Even if a name has a negative image tied to it, judges with that name still have a good chance of staying in office. As Schiavoni put it, “Name recognition is name recognition. It’s not always positive, but people remember it.”

This essential guaranteed spot in the court could lead a judge to slack a little in his effort to present a good image. At least, that’s what it seemed when this reporter tried to contact Judge Joseph D. Russo. Unreturned phone calls, late notice of his status for a potential interview, and getting back to the reporter the day before her deadline, although he had been contacted three weeks ahead of time, certainly created an image.

However, at the interview itself, a very different side of Russo was revealed. It became clear that he was not careless or self-consumed, but rather, extremely busy and cautious about protecting his name.

As Russo said, “Before I won my election in 2000, with the exception of Nancy Margaret Russo, male candidates with the last name Russo had lost before I finally won.”

When asked if he believed his name gave him any advantage in the election, Russo had a very different response from Schiavoni. He believes that having a popular name can help or harm you. If a person with a popular name does a good job in office, then it’s most likely helpful to their name recognition, but if they do badly, then it’s not. Since many Russos have lost in the past, Russo said, “having a so-called popular name is no guarantee of success in Cuyahoga County politics.”

Despite this, both Schiavoni and Russo agreed that the final Ohio election ballot should include the party designated for each candidate. This would give voters at least some information to base their votes on.

Whether it’s name recognition or not that is keeping the Russo name safe in the court system of Cuyahoga County, Russo said his biggest advantage is the solo reputation he has created for himself as a “tireless campaigner.” He said he believes in providing justice while still treating people with dignity and respect.

His favorite memory of working in the Common Pleas Court involves a Vietnam veteran who had struggled with heroin addiction for years. He couldn’t stop and, being in his 50s, some believed there was little hope of him ever ending his addiction. However, Russo gave him a chance to get clean, rather than sending him to jail. This inspired the man to realize he was, “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as he later told Russo. When he returned to the courtroom three months later for a status check, people completely filled the courtroom that day. Every one who stood up and told Russo how the man was doing said he was not only clean, but he had helped each of them get off, and stay off, heroin.

“I was so proud of him, and I felt so glad that I had given him a chance instead of sending him to prison. Those are the kind of days as a judge that you live for,” said Russo.

As one can see, the Ohio judicial election process may be “catastrophic,” and name recognition may be an unfair advantage in our system today, but in the case of Judge Joseph D. Russo, that may be a great thing.

Rachel Fritzman

Rachel Fritzman is a communication student at John Carroll University.

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Volume 5, Issue 12, Posted 5:51 PM, 10.29.2012