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Ohio’s Judicial Election System Upheld by U.S. Judge

A federal judge upheld Ohio’s unusual  system for electing judges while questioning its effectiveness at balancing disclosure with protection of impartial courts.

Ohio_quarter,_reverse_side,_2002U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott said the Constitution does not forbid the system of having candidates for judgeships run with party labels in primaries, and without party labels in general elections, according to the Columbus Dispatch. 

According to the newspaper, “Dlott questioned how the system tries to balance open disclosure of partisan politics with maintaining judges’ role as unbiased arbiters of justice. ‘Ohio’s Solomonic approach serves neither interest particularly well,’ she wrote.”

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Ohio Editorial Urges Tougher Recusal Rules for Judges

Ohio_quarter,_reverse_side,_2002More robust judicial recusal rules are needed in Ohio, given the weak rules that currently exist to police an important line between campaign spending and judges’ conduct on the bench, a Toledo (Ohio) Blade editorial says.

“When lawyers, litigants, and other interest groups have financial stakes in how courts rule, it’s unreasonable to think they would not expect a return on the investments they make in the form of campaign aid,” the editorial explains. That’s why strong recusal rule are important, it says. As for the weakness of the current ethics rules, it cites excerpts of a recent Center for American Progress report (see Gavel Grab).

While Ohio would be better served if it switched from electing judges to a system of merit selection, the editorial says, prospects for that reform are not good. It suggests recusal and disclosure reforms that could help, and it concludes:

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Ohio Court Incumbents Lead Challengers in Fundraising

Incumbent Ohio Supreme Court Justices Judith French and Sharon Kennedy lead their respective Democratic rivals in this year’s Supreme Court election, Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell and state Rep. Tom Letson, in fundraising, according to Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Justice French has raised almost $260,000, and Justice Kennedy, more than $137,000. Judge O’Donnell has raised about $90,000 in the first quarter of the year, and Letson didn’t file a campaign finance report, saying he neither raised nor spent $1,000, the threshold for filing.

 

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U.S. Judge Hands Ohio a Defeat in Marriage Ruling

Federal District Judge Timothy Black of Ohio ordered on Monday that Ohio officials must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples that were performed in other states where such marriage is legal, the Associated Press reported.

Gavel Grab has documented a recent increase in legislators’ calls to impeach judges who rule on the marriage issue, and Judge Black is one who has been targeted. Earlier this month Ohio state legislator John Becker renewed demands that Judge Black be impeached (see Gavel Grab), following the judge’s indications of how he expected to rule in the case decided this week.

In his ruling on Monday, Judge Black said that refusing to recognize marriages of same-sex couples violates constitutional rights and is “unenforceable in all circumstances.” Ohio intends to appeal Judge Black’s ruling, and the judge did not decide immediately whether to stay his order pending appeal.

Click here to learn more from Justice at Stake’s web page about impeachment threats against judges.

 

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Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Lays Out Plan for Judicial Reform

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is travelling across the state touting her eight-point plan that she hopes will create in her words, “A judiciary that is not influenced by personal opinion, by politics, or by any other extraneous information.”

Chief O’Connor has been a strong proponent of reform telling WXVU that polls show the public believes problems within the legal system exist.

“Judges you know can only make their decisions based on the law and the facts as they are presented to them at court.  And that is what’s vitally important,” O’Connor told the Clermont County Chamber of Commerce in Eastgate.

For more on this subject, please see previous Gavel Grab posts.

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‘New Politics’ Report Featured in Ohio News Media

A news outlet in still another state included in the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” report has featured its findings and quoted two of its principal authors, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

The CentralOhio.com news article, relying on the New Politics report, said that spending on state Supreme Court elections in Ohio totaled more than $3.8 million during the past election cycle and TV advertising amounted to $1.7 million.

Nationwide, an estimated $56.4 million was spent on judicial elections, according to the report, and more than $33.7 million of that went toward TV advertising.

“Judges are starting to look indistinguishable from other politicians. We don’t want our judges to be politicians in robes,” said Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center, lead author of the report.

Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, cautioned that questions of impartiality are raised when spending on judicial campaigns comes from donors who may become parties to lawsuits before a judge. Read more

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Ohio Lawsuit That Led to Impeachment Threats to Continue

A broadened lawsuit that could lead to Ohio recognizing all same-sex marriages from other states will be allowed to continue.

According to the Daily Journal, “Judge Timothy Black rejected a request from state attorneys asking to have a funeral director removed from the lawsuit, a move that essentially would have squelched it.”

A ruling by Judge Black in the original case (see Gavel Grab) led to those who disagreed with his ruling to call for his impeachment.

That lawsuit would have applied only to two gay Cincinnati couples who married over the summer in other states, according to the Daily Journal.

Attorneys asked the judge for a broader ruling to require Ohio’s health department director to order all funeral directors and coroners to list gay clients as married if they were legally wed in other states.

In refusing to dismiss the case, the judge said that one reason the funeral director plaintiff could remain on the case is because of the possibility of that he could face prosecution.

A decision by the judge is expected in December.

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Ohio Judicial Candidate Sees no Room for ‘Politics in Justice’

A veteran judge seeking reelection in Stow County, Ohio considers himself a Republican, is running as a nonpartisan and faces a Republican opponent. Judge Kim Hoover finds himself in this unusual situation in part because he firmly believes that “[t]he concept of politics in justice offends me on every level.”

An Associated Press article offers a snapshot of Judge Hoover and his reelection bid, a rarity in the only state that holds partisan primary contests in judicial elections, followed by nonpartisan general elections. The AP says Judge Hoover found a legal technicality that he used to register as nonpartisan.

Summit County Court of Common Pleas Magistrate Kandi O’Connor is running for Judge Hoover’s Municipal Court seat with backing from the Republican Party. At the same time, O’Connor says she supports a reform sought by Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to switch to nonpartisan primary contests in judicial elections.

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Chief Justice Derides Name Game in Ohio Judicial Elections

“Consider this: You’re standing before a judge who will decide your fate on a traffic violation, your divorce settlement, the custody of your children, or the estate of your parents. Do you care if the judge is a Democrat or a Republican? Do you want the judge to bring his or her political beliefs to these life-changing decisions? Should the judge’s political affiliation have anything at all to do with judging?”

“Absolutely not.”

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor writes these words in a Cleveland.com commentary, outlining a problem for Ohio residents. Justice O’Connor has promoted this year an eight-point plan for reforming Ohio’s judicial elections, and a central reform is ending partisan primary races for judges (see Gavel Grab); in the general election, no partisan affiliation is listed for judicial candidates.

In Ohio during a judicial election, the party affiliation of a judge is listed on the ballot in a primary. While in other elections this normally isn’t a problem, Justice O’Connor says, in a judicial election where the candidates are supposed to be objective and nonpartisan, this can severely damage the electoral process.

In fact, Justice O’Connor suggests, candidates may be chosen on the basis of last names. Her commentary cites the 1976 election between Justice Sweeney and Justice Brown. The Toledo Blade humorously chose Justice Sweeney on the basis of last name saying, the current bench already has two Justice Browns.

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Impeachment Sought for Judge in Ohio Marriage Case

Ohio’s constitution bans marriage of same-sex couples, but a federal judge recently recognized the marriage of a same-sex Ohio couple who wed out-of-state. Now Republican state Rep. John Becker (photo) has urged the start of impeachment proceedings against the judge for “malfeasance and abuse of power.”

Becker urged U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, to launch impeachment proceedings against Federal District Judge Timothy S. Black, according to a Cincinnati.com article. Here is Wenstrup’s reply:

“While Judge Black’s ruling violated the Ohio Constitution and the will of Ohio voters, the question of whether this decision also violated the U.S. Constitution remains before a higher court. I will watch those appellate proceedings closely to see if Judge Black’s decision is upheld and I have full confidence in the Ohio’s office of the Attorney General during the appeals process.”

When Judge Black recognized earlier this year the marriage of James Obergefell and John Arthur, who were wed in Maryland, he wrote, “This is not a complicated case.” He went on, according to the Washington Post,  ”The issue is whether the State of Ohio can discriminate against same sex marriages lawfully solemnized out of state, when Ohio law has historically and unambiguously provided that the validity of a marriage is determined by whether it complies with the law of the jurisdiction where it was celebrated.” Read more

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