Ohio State Senator Michael "Mike" J. Skindell
COLUMBUS — Mike Skindell is a candidate for Ohio Supreme Court justice.
He’s also a plaintiff in a lawsuit pending before the court, has a case pending as an attorney, and has helped to write laws interpreted by the bench.
All of this, he suggests, makes him uniquely qualified to serve on the state’s top court even if he’s never served as a judge. Just one member of the current bench, Justice Paul Pfeifer, had no judicial experience before joining the bench.
“If you look to the U.S. Supreme Court, out of 111 U.S. Supreme Court justices we’ve had in our history, 40 of them never served in a lower court, including 10 chief justices,” Mr. Skindell said. “There are current justices who have not served on a lower court.”
Mr. Skindell, 50, a Democratic state senator and former state representative from Lakewood, is challenging Republican Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who was first appointed to the bench in 2003 is now asking voters for a second full six-year term.
The court is dominated 6-1 by Republicans.
A plaintiff’s attorney who has specialized in product liability, personal injury, and other tort litigation, Mr. Skindell said his legal and legislative background would not dictate how he would vote on future cases on the court.
“If you have an open mind, like you’re supposed to, you look at the facts and the legal arguments, and in many of those things, I have not heard all sides,’’ he said. “So I don’t want to render [an opinion].
“My work in the Senate has been such that my mind has been changed,” Mr. Skindell said. “I originally approached some legislative issues with my mind set one way and after conversations with folks, I changed my opinion in the legislative process. So I try to keep an open mind.”
Both Mr. Skindell and Justice O’Donnell have been equally rated as “recommended” by the Ohio State Bar Association, despite the different experiences they bring to the table.
“My opponent is not a judge,” Justice O’Donnell said. “He has never instructed a jury. He has never presided over a felony trial. He’s never sentenced a defendant. We have a rule at court that says you have to have 12 hours of credit in a death-penalty case in order to be assigned as defense counsel in a capital murder case … My opponent isn’t qualified to be appointed by a defense counsel on a case, yet he’s a candidate for the Supreme Court.”
As a legislator and ranking Democrat on budget committees over the years, Mr. Skindell has played a role in school funding and admits that he may at some point, especially with more recent budget cuts, have characterized the way the state has funded schools to be unconstitutional
“Since I got involved in the judicial race, I’ve been a little more cautious,” he said. “If I would be on the Supreme Court, I would have to hear the case that is being presented by the plaintiff and the defendants, and based upon the facts and looking at the law, render a decision. The facts and the circumstances change.”
Mr. Skindell said he is a firm believer in respecting legal precedent and criticized the court in the past for reversing its past position in a handful of cases after elections tipped the philosophical majority of the court.
One notable case was the so-called Scott Pontzer case, a rather obscure case that came to epitomize what business and insurance critics of the prior court characterized as “judicial activism.” The prior court had held that, because of a flaw in policy language involving uninsured and underinsured motorists’ coverage, someone injured in a car accident could make a claim against his employer’s insurance, even if he was not driving a company car or on company time when the accident occurred.
When it had the numbers, the new court majority used a different case to reverse that ruling.
“I strongly believe in the doctrine of stare decisis, adhering to past precedents,” Mr. Skindell said.
“If you don’t do that,” he said, ”you can discard past decisions with the change in political makeup of a Supreme Court. That’s not healthy for a democracy, continuity, or consistency in law and confidence in the judiciary.”
Mr. Skindell is among the plaintiffs in a case that challenges the constitutionality of the state’s new private, nonprofit economic development organization, JobsOhio. The technical issue pending before the Supreme Court is an appeal of a lower court’s finding that the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to mount the challenge.