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Opinion: Break up the one-party rule on the Ohio Supreme Court

Campaign contributions to Republican Ohio Supreme Court justices pay big dividends for the donors. The New York Times article “Campaign Cash Mirrors a High Court’s Rulings” points out a strong correlation between campaign contributions and individual Ohio Supreme Court Justice’s votes in judicial decisions in Ohio. This cartoon is from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The 2002 poll commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Ohio Education Fund found that 83% of voters believed that campaign contributions influence the decisions of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Today, all seven Ohio Supreme Court justices are Republicans with little to check the excesses of one-party rule.

Newspaper articles and studies have pointed to a correlation between campaign contributions and the votes of members of the Ohio Supreme Court. The New York Times article “Campaign Cash Mirrors a High Court’s Rulings” noted:

"An examination of the Ohio Supreme Court by The New York Times found that its justices routinely sat on cases after receiving campaign contributions from the parties involved or from groups that filed supporting briefs. On average, they voted in favor of contributors 70 percent of the time. Justice O’Donnell voted for his contributors 91 percent of the time, the highest rate of any justice on the court."

Under Ohio’s Code of Judicial Conduct (Canon 3), judges should disqualify themselves when they cannot perform their duties “impartially and diligently.” The NYTimes investigation found that Ohio Supreme Court judges almost never disqualified themselves from hearing their contributors cases:

"In the 12 years that were studied, the justices almost never disqualified themselves from hearing their contributors’ cases. In the 215 cases with the most direct potential conflicts of interest, justices recused themselves just 9 times."

Republican Justice Maureen O'Connor, up for reelection in 2008, voted in favor of her contributors 74% of the time.

Her opponent in this race, Democrat Joseph Russo, has proposed a rule that would force Justices to disqualify themselves from cases involving their largest contributors. Not surprisingly, O'Connor opposes this rule. The enactment of this rule would almost assuredly cause campaign contributions to O'Connor and her other Republican colleagues on the Court to quickly dry up (Columbus Dispatch: GOP rolling in dough in Supreme Court race).

The NYTimes article also points out that much of the massive increase in campaign spending in Ohio's Supreme Court races, from $100,000 in the 1980s to $2 million in current races, came from business sources – particularly the Ohio insurance industry.

Increasingly, the court has been ruling against consumers, especially where insurance companies are involved.

The strength of our judiciary rests in the confidence Ohioans have in the fairness and impartiality of the court. The legitimacy of the court is undermined when studies show people believe contributions influence decisions.

With the currrent GOP monopoly on the Ohio Supreme Court seats, Democrats Russo and Sikora would move the Court toward a better balance and encourage a stronger observance of ethical standards.

 

Scott Dybiec, Upper Arlington, Ohio

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