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Appointed judge, experienced prosecutor make first runs for bench
The Blade - 10/14/2020
Oct. 14--Lucas County voters will be asked to decide between an appointed judge or an experienced prosecutor for a seat on the Lucas County Common Pleas Court General Division bench.
Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Alfonso "Jess" Gonzalez, a Republican, is facing Democratic nominee Lori Olender, who serves as the deputy chief of the Lucas County prosecutor's juvenile division.
It's the first time both candidates are seeking an elected position.
Judge Gonzalez, 52, of Maumee, was selected by Gov. Mike DeWine in March, 2019, to fill the vacant seat of Judge Gene Zmuda, who was elected to the Sixth District Court of Appeals. Judge Gonzalez was one of three candidates selected by the local party to be screened by the governor.
Prior to his appointment, Judge Gonzalez served as a magistrate at the county's domestic relations court. He's handled debtor-related issues, real estate contracts, probate matters, and criminal misdemeanors, but he primarily oversees civil and criminal cases at the general division's courthouse.
He has also served as a staff attorney and law clerk.
All together, he has more than 15 years of experience in the legal field, with two of those years dedicated to his present position. In his first year as judge, he presided over seven jury trials -- including three murder cases in the span of four weeks.
"I believe the position provides me a great opportunity to make a difference in the community while also allowing me to dispense justice in a fair and measured fashion given my background," the judge said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Olender, 50, of Toledo, has 25 years of experience in various courtroom capacities and knowledge of court rules and procedures.
She started her career as a Toledo Municipal Court public defender in 1995, and she said she has not been out of the courtroom since. She served nine years prosecuting child abuse cases, and she's overseen more than 60 trials before a variety of judges.
She currently leads the county prosecutor's juvenile division. In between prosecuting often challenging cases of children committing crimes, she also strives to train younger prosecutors to prepare them to transition from juvenile court to the general division court, where most of the criminal cases involve adults.
She says a judge serves as one of the most important positions in the criminal justice system.
"I believe that role should be taken extremely seriously," she said. "I want to be the person that the public can trust to make the decision that is fair and impartial and based on the law. Most importantly, I want to serve my community."
If elected to the bench, Judge Gonzalez said he hopes to serve in a mentoring role with the Toledo Public Schools and assist agencies dedicated to serving veterans, those with mental health issues, or the homeless.
"Sadly, I believe these issues have taken a back seat to the opiate epidemic. I personally feel they are as important, and less resources are dedicated to combating them," Judge Gonzalez said.
Judge Gonzalez did run into legal problems of his own during his first stint on the bench. In September, 2019, he pleaded guilty in Findlay Municipal Court to a misdemeanor driving under the influence charge after a July evening spent drinking with a family member.
"I'm taking ownership over it. I want to get it behind me. It was a terrible mistake," Judge Gonzalez told The Blade at the time.
While protecting Lucas County residents is Ms. Olender's top priority, she also hopes to reduce recidivism and maintain an efficient courtroom. Prior to the coronavirus moving most hearings to virtual conferencing, it was not uncommon for defendants to wait hours for their case to be called.
"I will continue to study the law. I believe that it is important for a judge to constantly keep in tune with not just the new case law that is out there, but the trends and research in the area of sentencing and rehabilitation," she said.
Ms. Olender is a member of several local legal organizations and she also serves with many community organizations, including the board of governors at the University of Toledo College of Law, the Zepf Center board of directors, and the YWCA board. She is also a member of the Junior League, the Sexual Assault Response Team, and she was part of the Victim's Forum board.
Outside of work, she volunteers at the Ability Center, the Aurora Project, Family House, Mom's House, and Lucas County Special Olympics. They're important organizations for her after the death of her step-father, and the recent death of her sister who had Down's Syndrome that led to dementia.
She says she would bring fair treatment to all, which she learned from one of her mentors, Judge Frederick McDonald, who died in August.
"As a prosecutor in his courtroom, I did not always agree with his rulings, but he always showed the utmost respect for everyone in the courtroom. He also always took time to talk to you after a trial and let you know the things you did well and areas you could work on," she said.
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