Three candidates are only a week away from knowing who will win the judgeship in Ashtabula Municipal Court.
Incumbent Laura DiGiacomo was appointed municipal judge in January by Gov. John Kasich. She assumed office Feb. 17, replacing Albert Camplese, who was elected to Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court, probate/juvenile division, last fall.
The candidates are running for the remainder of Camplese's unexpired term, which ends Dec. 31, 2019.
Jane Hawn-Jackson, an attorney working in Jefferson and a Saybrook Township trustee, and Marie Lane, an attorney and chief public defender at the Ashtabula County Public Defender Office, also are seeking the judge seat.
A lifelong Ashtabula resident, DiGiacomo was the first woman to be appointed to Ashtabula's court and now she faces off with two women to retain her seat.
"I have always aspired to be a judge in my hometown. I remember growing up in this area and see how things change over time," she said. "I am committed to this community and strive to create a safe and healthy environment for all. I believe I can make a difference in this position and I welcome the challenge."
She also said she believes she is the best candidate for the job.
"I am the only candidate with judicial experience, having presided over 8,000 cases in the eight months I have been on the bench," DiGiacomo said. "I have proven I can do the job."
Her goals are to address the drug epidemic and mental health issues, which she said are the basis for the majority of the criminal cases coming before the court. DiGiacomo said she plans to establish specialized dockets, such as a drug court, a mental health court and a veteran's court.
"I am in tune with the changing needs of our community and have significant training and experiences with drug addiction and mental health issues," she said. "Over the years, I have developed a good working relationship with service providers in the area, necessary to implement my plans."
DiGiacomo received a bachelor of arts in criminal justice from Kent State University and her juris doctor from the University of Akron School of Law.
In her private law office, she has been practicing law for more than 22 years. She served as special counsel to the county Children Services Board and worked as assistant Ashtabula County prosecutor. She is a member of the county Bar Association and has been a member of the Habitat for Humanity board, Ohio State Bar Association and the Ashtabula area Zonta Club.
She practiced law in all court levels including the Supreme Court of Ohio, achieving positive outcomes for families, children and victims of crime, she said.
"My job duties are to run an efficient and effective court and I have already begun to fulfill this role," she said. "I have continued Amnesty Court for collecting back fines, as well as ordered significant community service in lieu of fines, when the offender is deemed uncollectible."
DiGiacomo said she's conscious of the challenges facing the community, especially with the drug epidemic, economy and lack of adequate jail space.
"I have a strong commitment to finding solutions for these issues, especially with regards to the heroin problem, as it has effected my family as well," she said. "I strive to be strict but fair. I have already achieved some initial goals while in office, such as implementing a pretrial diversion program; cutting back on plea bargains; becoming Ashtabula County's first paperless court ... and ordering more community service."
She has been married 22 years to Steve DiGiacomo, owner of Ashtabula Pest Control, and they have two children who attend Ashtabula Area City Schools.
A lifetime resident of Ashtabula, Jane Hawn-Jackson has more than 30 years of legal experience and 18 years of a private law practice.
"A Municipal Court judge's role consists of both legal and administrative duties," she said. "My goal is to utilize my public administrative knowledge and business owner experience to make the Ashtabula Municipal Court as efficient as possible."
Hawn-Jackson first practiced law with Ashtabula Legal Aid before joining the Public Defenders' Office. Subsequent to that position, she was special prosecutor for the county Children Services Board for 11 years.
After leaving public employment, she established her own law firm.
"I am the most qualified candidate after having practiced law in all the areas the Municipal Court oversees, specifically, traffic, criminal, landlord-tenant and civil," she said. "I have also mediated small claims court."
Though the courtroom is the obvious responsibility of a presiding judge, the less apparent responsibilities entail administration, she said.
A twice-elected Saybrook Township trustee, Hawn-Jackson said she is committed to her civic community, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Homesafe, Lake Erie Recovery Center, Gilda's Club for Cancer Patients, ACCESS Ashtabula County Board, 4-H, the Saybrook planning commission board, Leadership 2009 and St. John School Board.
She said she's proud to have worked with the city and the Ashtabula Area City School Board in support of building the Ashtabula Lakeside Elementary Schools inside Ashtabula's city limits.
Saybrook Township and the city also partnered to provide new traffic signals for for Ashtabula Area City Schools for safer routes to school.
"(Saybrook) recently opened a second fire station for faster response times to homes along the lakefront, as well as the Saybrook Landing, and the elementary schools," Hawn-Jackson said. "In 2013, Saybrook Township entered into a joint economic development district (JEDD) with St. John High School and the city of Ashtabula, and is in the process of finalizing a second, $6 million JEDD with the Lantern."
Both JEDDs will result in tens of thousands of dollars annually to both the township and city, she said. The agreement also helps service the city's wastewater treatment facility.
"If elected, I will use my business and administrative experience to run the court in a more efficient, businesslike fashion," she said. "Furthermore, I will use my collaborative experience to address the drug and alcohol problem plaguing our community."
For example, the critical shortage of jail space requires drug and alcohol offenders to wait two or three years to serve a sentence, resulting in a critical lack of deterrence, she said.
"Additionally, I would like to alleviate the pressure on the jail by exploring the option of a mental health docket for less-serious, mentally-challenged offenders," she said. "Rather than duplicating the bureaucracy of a second drug court at the municipal level, I would like to coordinate resources with the existing drug court."
Hawn-Jackson said she also would like to expedite the civil docket, small claims docket and landlord tenant docket. She would do this by bringing back the Ashtabula County Mediation Program, which also allows individuals to resolve matters without attorneys and costly legal fees.
"Regarding revenues, I would return the collection of fines to court oversight rather than pay a percentage to a third party where we cannot verify their efforts or efficiency," she said. "Instead, I would designate one full-time court employee and implement online payment to collect court fines that sustain the critical general funds. Unlike a third-party collection agency, the court would have more immediate enforcement options."
She credits her parents, Florence (Capitena) Hawn, John "Jack" Hawn and Stuart and Jeanne Jackson for her strong family values.
A graduate of Ashtabula High School, Hawn-Jackson is a graduate of Villa Maria College and Ohio Northern School of Law.
Chief Public Defender Marie Lane said she believes she's the best choice for Municipal Judge because of her 22 years of trial experience in Ohio's Municipal Court system.
She has practiced law in the municipal courts in Ashtabula County for 17 years as Ashtabula County's chief public defender and in the municipal courts in Stark County for six years as an assistant public defender. In addition, as the chief public defender, she litigates the major felony cases in Ashtabula County, including aggravated murder cases. Her experience also includes more than 100 jury trials and cases before the Ohio Supreme Court.
"I grew up in Cuyahoga Falls and earned my bachelor's degree at West Virginia Wesleyan College," she said. "From there I went on to attend the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. It was law school where I fell in love with criminal law. I knew I wanted to work in a courtroom."
Lane's legal career spans every level of the trial court system. She started at the bottom and worked her way up, she said.
"When I began my career in Stark County, I was first placed in the juvenile court division," she said. "I represented juvenile offenders. I also represented parents in dependency, neglect and abuse cases, including cases wherein the state was seeking to permanently terminate the parental rights."
After a couple of years in the juvenile division, Lane was promoted to represent offenders charged in the Stark County Municipal Court system.
"When I first entered the Municipal Court System, I was struck by the pace, variety and volume of cases," she said. "In addition, each municipality had its own set of ordinances and laws. I was incredibly fortunate to have the mentorship of not only senior staff attorneys, but also of the Municipal Court judges. These judges were great teaching judges. They were true role models."
Lane said she was promoted to the Stark County Court of Common Pleas to handle major felony cases, including murder cases.
"The transition to a felony caseload was not as stressful, thanks to my municipal court training," she said. "It was a natural transition from misdemeanor jury trials to felony jury trials."
In November 1998, Lane was hired away from Stark County and become director of Ashtabula County's Public Defender Office. She gained management experience. In addition, she is one of only a handful of Ashtabula County attorneys who is certified by the Ohio Supreme Court to handle death penalty cases, she said.
Lane has represented clients before the Ohio Supreme Court, including a case where she convinced the court to strike down a portion of a criminal statute as being unconstitutional.
"I am very proud of this case because I represented the client from the time he was first charged with the offense in the county, and then took it all the way to Ohio's top court and changed the law," she said.
Lane said she is especially proud of her work in the area of substance abuse and mental health treatment in the criminal justice system. She is a founding member of the Ashtabula County Common Pleas Drug Court program, which started in 2008.
"Ohio's criminal justice system has recognized the essential role that specialized docket programs, such as the drug court, play in combating crime," she said.
She is president of the Ashtabula County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.
In 2011, Lane was honored by her peers when she received the Distinguished Service Award from the Ashtabula County Bar Association. She served as its president from 2009-2011.
Her community involvement includes being a member and current trustee of Ashtabula Elks Lodge No. 208 and a member of the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary No. 103. She's also president of her homeowners association.