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Ohio Chief Justice’s Reform Proposals Lack Political Momentum

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor met with the Northeast Ohio Media Group earlier this month to discuss her proposals to combat voter apathy in judicial elections. An article from Cleveland.com explains that her three proposals – holding off-year elections, strengthening voter education outreach, and increasing experience requirements for judges – are not gaining much political momentum.

A voter education website would provide a “self promotional” tool for judicial candidates of all levels. Although this proposal has not garnered any significant opposition, experts doubt it will have much of an impact. The voters O’Connor wants to reach “are historically not the ones to research candidates,” the article explains. Still, supporters of the initiative say low information voters will benefit from having the highlights available on the one website.

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Justice O’Neill: Ohio Oil and Gas Bought Fracking Decision

Justice William O'Neill

Justice William O’Neill

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that oil-and-gas companies do not have to follow municipal regulations. The opinion may have been influenced by political donations from the same companies that benefited, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

“What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive,” wrote Justice William M. O’Neill in his dissenting opinion. The article confirms that “Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry poured about $1.4 million into the campaign coffers of legislators and other state officials in 2013-14 — including about $8,000 for the justice who wrote the pro-industry ruling and $7,200 for another who concurred.” O’Neill is uniquely suited to highlight these issues, the article explains, because he collected no donations for his campaign. All $5,000 of his campaign’s expenditure was from O’Neill’s own pocket.

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Ohio Supreme Court Justices Butt Heads Over Fracking Decision

Ohio Fracking CaseIn a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that “the state has ‘exclusive authority’ and that cities and counties can neither ban nor regulate fracking through zoning laws or other restrictions,” the Columbia Dispatch reports.

Residents of Munroe Falls, Ohio filed for an injunction against Beck Energy when the company began drilling without filing for a municipal permit, according to ohio.com. A lower court granted an injunction based on the state’s Home Rule Amendment, which gives cities the right to self government, “so long as their ordinances do not conflict with general state laws.”  However, both the appellate court and Supreme Court determined that the state regulations, passed in 2004 by the General Assembly, were sufficient. “We have consistently held that a municipal-licensing ordinance conflicts with a state-licensing scheme if the local ordinance restricts an activity which a state license permits,” Justice Judith French explained in the opinion.

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Proposals to ‘Elevate Judicial Elections’ in Ohio

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wants to “elevate judicial elections.” To this end, she has proposed increasing qualifications to become a judge, launching a comprehensive website covering all judicial elections in the state, and moving the elections to odd-years.

According to Lima News, criticism has been focused primarily on the latter suggestion. O’Connor believes that voters will be more interested in judicial elections if legislative elections are not already holding their attention. This logic has attracted the skepticism of legal and political experts, who argue that off-year elections have a notorious record for low voter turnout. Moving judicial elections to off years, they contend, will only exasperate both problems.

A constitutional amendment is required for changing the election schedule, but some other reform measures don’t require such an arduous process. The informational website is already expected to go live before the November elections.

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Ohio Chief Justice, Pushing for Reform, Releases Poll Data

VOTERA poll of Ohio voters shows that 56 percent “believe some unqualified people are elected to the bench due to problems with elections,” the Columbus Dispatch reported, and 44 percent agree or strongly agree that “courts are primarily political institutions where rival groups seek advantage under the law.”

On a more positive note for the courts, 76 percent said they agree or strongly agree when asked if  the “court system is the key protector of individual liberty, safety and property.”

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would shift judicial elections to off-years, in order for them to get more attention from voters. She released the polling data on Thursday. Read more

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JAS Partner Advocates for Changing Way Ohio Judges are Selected

Ohio’s Chief Justice has sparked a renewed debate over the best way to choose qualified judges (see Gavel Grab). One prominent  advocate for a switch from contested elections to an appointive-and-retention election system is the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

“The League of Women Voters of Ohio has for years believed that the problem is that the kind of elections which work for politicians don’t work well for the judiciary,” LWV Ohio President Nancy Brown writes in a Cleveland Plain Dealer op-ed.

“Judges are different. Judges are not politicians in robes who promise to decide cases in a particular way who should be thrown out of office if they don’t keep their promises. Rather, judges are required to apply the law, regardless of their personal beliefs.” Read more

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Ohio Chief Justice: Consider Appointing, Not Electing, Judges

Chief Justice O'Connor

Chief Justice O’Connor

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, remarking on a high number of uncontested judicial elections in the state this year, says Ohio ought to consider appointing judges rather than electing them.

Justice O’Connor has discussed reform in the past (see Gavel Grab) although her proposals have not resulted in action by the legislature. She recently expressed her concerns in an interview with the Associated Press, which summed up her thinking this way:

“The goal is to take politics out of judicial campaigns, O’Connor said. She favors a system where the governor would appoint judges based on recommendations from a screening committee, with voters casting ballots in retention elections two years later to decide whether the judges should keep their jobs.

“That plan would ‘still allow the voters to weigh in, but you would be judging the candidate on their record, what have they done for the two years during the interim,’ O’Connor said. ‘That preserves the best of both worlds.'”

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Critical TV Ad in Ohio Court Race Draws Bar Rebuke

A TV ad in advance of the Ohio Supreme Court election, aired by Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell, accuses incumbent Justice Judith L. French of being “in the pocket of big utilities,” referring to campaign contributions and her decision in a rate case.

A panel of the Ohio State Bar Association found Judge O’Donnell violated a “clean campaign pledge” and the ad’s depictions “falsely imply that justice is for sale in Ohio.” The Bar asked him to pull the ad.

The Bar’s action was reported by the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Justice French said about her opponent, according to the Columbus Dispatch, “Judges should be held to the highest standard. It’s concerning that he has gone negative and broken his promise to the voters and to his colleagues.” Read more

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Will Irish Surname Affect Election for Ohio Supreme Court?

What’s in a name? There’s a debate about that in an Ohio Supreme Court race. An Associated Press article puts it this way:

“Call it the hunt for Irish ‘ayes': Republicans charge that Democrats are trying to paint the ballot green in an Ohio Supreme Court race by recruiting a candidate based solely on his Irish last name.”

The candidate is Cuyahoga County Judge John O’Donnell. He is challenging Justice Judy French. In a GOP ad she is called “Judge Judi” to snag some of the popularity of “Judge Judy” on TV. Read more

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First TV Ads Aired in Ohio Supreme Court Contests

Two incumbent Ohio Supreme Court justices who are seeking re-election have begun airing TV advertising.

Justices Judith L. French and Sharon L. Kennedy, both Republicans, have teamed up to buy back-to-back ad time, a Columbus Dispatch blog reported. Democratic Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell is opposing Justice French, and Democratic state Rep. Tom Letson is opposing Justice Kennedy.

The Brennan Center for Justice makes the ads available at its Buying Time 2014 website. Each ad includes images of the justice talking to officers in uniform. You can view Justice French’s ad by clicking here and Justice Kennedy’s by clicking here.

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