By Barbara Pash
When Ivan Shutinya was 10, he had a revelation while watching the swearing-in ceremony of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on TV.
“I noticed that there was an African-American justice and a female justice, but no justices in wheelchairs,” said Shutinya. He decided to be the first.
At the age of 29, he is starting on the path to make that dream a reality by running to be a judge on the Baltimore County Orphans’ Court.
Born with cerebral palsy and diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia — the most severe form of the disease — Shutinya anticipates a difficult campaign. He isn’t referring to the physical strain, but to the fact that most voters are barely aware of the Baltimore County Orphans’ Court — much less that it has three judges elected to four-year terms.
Most Maryland counties have an Orphans’ Court. It’s the state’s probate court that hears cases involving people who die without a will and guardianship issues of minor children. The judges are not required to have law degrees.
But Shutinya does. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, and has taken courses in family law. “I wouldn’t want to run for a position I wasn’t qualified in,” he said.
Shutinya has faced challenges before. He attended elementary school in the early days of the American Disabilities Act, before handicap-accessible facilities were the norm. He was one of the first disabled people to be mainstreamed in Baltimore County Public Schools.
He graduated magna cum laude from St. Mary’s College, and received a service award upon graduating from the University of Maryland Law School in 2006. He passed the bar and was working as an attorney when he was laid off last fall.
Shutinya saw that as an opportunity. He could devote himself full-time to campaigning. So far, though, his sole campaign appearance has been at a candidates’ forum. His two sisters are his campaign managers, a tech-savvy uncle is developing a website for him, and his campaign funds are nonexistent.
But Shutinya has a plan. The National Disability Institute is sponsoring a video contest and the winner gets $1,000. Shutinya’s video, “My American Dream,” is one of five finalists. The videos can be viewed on YouTube and, up to September 17, anyone can vote for their favorite on YouTube or Facebook. If he wins, Shutinya plans to use the money for fliers and yard signs.
This is Shutinya’s first political contest, although ideally, courts are not political arenas. “You can’t really have a platform. As a judge, the idea is to be fair and impartial,” said Shutinya, who does, nonetheless, have a message to convey.
“I’m a hard worker. I have had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get where I am now,” he said. “I would be fair. I would follow the law. I would uphold my oath as a judge, and not have personal opinions.”
Shutinya is one of three Republican candidates for the three positions, so he and the others have already “won” the GOP primary. The three sitting judges and a challenger are facing off in the Democratic primary. In the November general election, the three top vote-getters will take the bench.
Whatever the outcome, Shutinya says he has, in a way, already won. He sees his candidacy as an example for other disabled persons.