Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice: Time to change how judges elected

O'Connor talks about possible changes in visit

UNION TOWNSHIP -- On the same day that a Hamilton County judge was indicted on eight felony charges , the Ohio Supreme Court’s chief justice was in the region trying to garner support for changing how judges are selected.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor spoke in Clermont County about the public’s bleak view of the judiciary and voter apathy about electing judges.

Although O’Connor was asked about Friday’s indictment of Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter, she declined comment on the case.

But the chief justice said criminal indictment of any judge emphasizes the need for greater public education and involvement when choosing judges.

“We have about 730 judges (in Ohio),” O’Connor told a crowd at a Union Township luncheon. “Sometimes they err in their judgment and they cross the line, and they’re removed for it."

“I think it’s evidence we need to have better information before the public before they elect members of the judiciary,” she added.

As part of the ongoing process to suggest changes for modernizing and improving Ohio’s constitution, O’Connor has been leading a public discussion about judicial elections .

Ohio’s constitutional modernization process began in 2011 and will last a decade. The commission, consisting of 12 legislators — six Democrats and six Republicans — along with 20 non-legislators, will make recommendations to the General Assembly if they are agreed upon by a two-thirds vote.

Any proposals will only go before voters if they are approved by three-fifths of the members of the Ohio House and Senate.

O’Connor has been speaking about a multi-point plan to overhaul judicial elections. The judge said she doesn’t necessarily agree with every aspect, but thinks they are ideas that should be fully reviewed and debated.

Among the possible changes:

  • Rotating the order of state offices on the ballot, so judges aren’t listed last;
  • Moving state and county judicial elections to odd-numbered years, where they may get more attention away from high-profile races like president, Congress and governor;
  • Eliminating party affiliation in primary elections for judicial candidates, and switch to an open primary system;
  • Centralizing and expanding public education about how the judicial system operates, including creating a database listing the qualifications and experience of all candidates; and
  • Increasing the basic qualifications needed to run for a judgeship. Currently, a person in Ohio only has to have been a practicing attorney for six years.

Public attitudes suggest some change is needed.

A poll by the National Center for State Courts found that 59 percent of Americans believe courts' decisions are influenced by politics. Also, a 2012 poll found that the U.S. Supreme Court's public approval rating was just 44 percent, an all-time low.

“There is an over-arching belief that judges make their decisions based on politics and based on special interest groups,” O’Connor said. “We need to do something to dispel that notion among the citizenry.”

Most judges don’t let their personal beliefs influence their rulings, she added.

“Judges can only make their decisions on the facts presented in court,” O’Connor said.

“There is no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge,” she said. Admonishing colleagues who may let ideology sway them, O’Connor continued, “if that is the case, I’m sorry but you’re violating your oath of office and you should hang up your robe. I feel very strongly about that.”

A Republican, O’Connor noted she has ruled in cases involving labor unions and healthcare that favored traditionally Democratic viewpoints.

Part of the problem, O’Conner said, is popular TV shows that feature surly retired judges haranguing plaintiffs and defendants for entertainment.

“Those judges are disrespectful, snarky – the antithesis of what a judge is supposed to be,” she said.

Ohio voters have twice rejected measures to have judges appointed based on merit instead of elected, in 1937 and 1987. As such, O’Connor believes elections are here to stay but should be improved.

But many people choose not to vote for judicial candidates while at the polls, either through indifference or ignorance. Typically, between 20 percent and 45 percent of voters don’t make judicial selections, a trend known as “voter fatigue.”

“It’s almost counter-intuitive,” O’Connor said. “They say they want to vote for judges but they don’t do it… we have to bolster the presence of the judiciary in the minds of the electorate.”

O'Connor, 62, is the 10th chief justice in Ohio history, and the first woman to lead the judicial branch.

A former lieutenant governor under Bob Taft, O’Conner was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2002. She was reelected in 2008, and appointed chief justice by then-Gov. Ted Strickland in May 2010.

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