Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court plugged some of her ideas for judicial selection reform at a gathering of the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland.
She would like to see judicial elections moved to odd-numbered years in hopes that voters would get more information about judicial candidates and vote smarter, according to a Cleveland.com article. And she said that by November, a new website featuring information about every judicial candidate will be operating.
“The League supports the independence of judges with preference for merit selection,” Cleveland.com noted. Read more
In profiling Florence Allen of Ohio, a trailblazer who became first female state supreme court justice in 1922, a local judge writes that Ohio is in the forefront of gender diversity on the bench today.
David Hejmanowski, judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of Delaware County Common Pleas Court, writes in a Morrow County Sentinel op-ed:
“Thirty percent of Ohio’s active judges are female, an increase of 5 percent in only one year, and we are one of only nine states in which the highest appellate court has a female majority (California, Washington, Texas, Arkansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Maryland and New York are the others). Five of Ohio’s 12 appellate court districts have female majorities and 31 of 68 appellate court judges in Ohio are women. The 9th District Court in Akron is presided over by an entirely female bench.
“Indeed, the last major gender divide in the Ohio judiciary exists in municipal and county courts, where only 61 of 239 judges are female.”
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy, a former police officer, told a university audience about her own experience in threatening situations like those that have become topics of national debate.
According to the Journal-News, Justice Kennedy recalled a moment as a police officer when she was stopped at a traffic light in her personal vehicle, when a young boy pointed a shotgun from his car window at the rear of her car.
She drew her weapon and gave commands. He dropped his weapon, which later was found to be unloaded. “It would have been a justified shooting,” she said, “but I would have killed a young man who could not have killed me, but I did not know it in the moment.” The newspaper article elaborated: Read more
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
A 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
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
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.'”