Ohio top judge wants nonpartisan judge primaries
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Party labels would be stripped from Ohio’s judicial primaries as one of a series of election reforms that the state Supreme Court chief justice unveiled to fellow lawyers on Thursday.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor told the Ohio State Bar Association’s annual convention in Cleveland that she is recommending an eight-point plan including nonpartisan primaries, more cameras in courtrooms and more experienced judges in order to strengthen public engagement and trust in the judiciary.
“Now is the time to revisit this topic once and for all, not to do away with judicial elections, which voters made clear they want, but to strengthen them,” O’Connor said.
But O’Connor’s plan ignores the critical issue of campaign contributions in judicial elections, said Justice Bill O’Neill, the lone Democrat on the seven-member high court.
He called Ohio’s unique practice of naming the party of judicial candidates during primaries but not during general elections “odd at best,” but said that’s not the problem.
“If you look at the chief’s proposal, all she’s going to do is make the well-heeled contributors only have to write one check rather than two,” he said. “Any serious proposal will address the corrosive effect that money has on the existing system. There is no question that justice is for sale in Ohio today.”
O’Connor said she doesn’t claim to have all the answers but comes to her list after close review of past reform efforts, including the 2003 Next Steps conference and the 2009 Forum on Judicial Selection led by then-Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who died in 2010.
Other ideas on which she’ll be gathering public input include:
— raising the position of judicial races on the ballot to increase voter participation;
— moving judicial races to odd-numbered years to avoid information overload for the public and judges’ races getting “lost in the shuffle” of more high-profile elected offices;
— increasing the basic qualifications for judges to better reflect the court on which they serve;
— lengthening judges’ terms from the current six years to between eight and 12 years, depending on the court;
— centralizing and expanding civic educational and voting resources on judicial elections;
— establishing a formal, nonpartisan system for recommending nominees to the governor for judicial vacancies;
— allowing the Ohio Senate to weigh in on Supreme Court appointments.
O’Connor was greeted with applause during Thursday’s event when she declared: “Party affiliation has no place in judicial elections, period.”
Her initiative comes as polls show the public views judges as susceptible to political influence, yet a strong majority of Ohioans oppose doing away with judicial elections altogether, she said.
Of 22 states that elect judges, 14 have nonpartisan elections and seven have overtly political contests. Ohio is the only state in the nation that identifies the party of prospective judges in its primaries and then sends winners into a general election in which party labels aren’t used.
O’Connor, the state’s first female chief justice, wants to see Ohio join states with nonpartisan judicial races with the aim of reassuring the public that courts are unbiased.
Ohio League of Women Voters President Nancy Brown praised O’Connor for attempting to reduce partisanship and for opening a public dialogue on improving judicial elections.
The league supports appointed judges who stand for retention elections, but Brown said “even without such a change, the current system can be improved and made more effective in insuring that we have capable judges and that the citizens of Ohio have confidence in their judges.”
O’Neill, who accepted no political contributions in the campaign that ended in his surprise win last year, blamed money, not party labels, for any negative public perception of the judiciary.
“Any fair analysis of the judicial elections in Ohio always comes to the same conclusion, and that is that money and judges don’t mix,” he said. “She’s totally ignoring what I consider to be the elephant in the living room.”