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Published: Friday, 5/2/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

O’Connor talks plan for judicial reform

Chief justice: Election years should shift

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

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COLUMBUS — Judicial elections should be held in odd-numbered years to avoid getting lost amid presidential and gubernatorial campaigns and should be moved to the top of the ballot, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said Thursday.

She also called for increasing mandatory qualifications of candidates for the bench and a program to inform voters so they can better assess those who want to be judges.

But she has given up, “although reluctantly,” on the idea of eliminating partisan labels entirely from judicial ballots.

A year earlier, the Republican chief justice used a similar appearance before the Ohio State Bar Association to pose questions that were then vetted via a Web site and a series of meetings with major players in the system.

Today she presented some of them as firm proposals that she urged lawmakers and Gov. John Kasich to embrace.

Moving judicial elections to odd-numbered years, now dominated by local races and issues, would involve voter approval of a change to the Ohio Constitution. Changing judicial races’ ballot placement could be done by lawmakers.

“The judiciary competes for attention with partisan candidates for president, senator, Congress, governor, and others who are able to shout their messages while judicial candidates can only whisper, if that,” Chief Justice O’Connor said.

“Many Ohioans don’t even vote for judges because they get tired by the time they reach judges’ names at the end of the ballot.”

She announced the creation of a voter-information Web site containing “quality, substantive information” about candidates. The University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics will serve as home for the first statewide voter education and outreach program.

There has long been conjecture that, in the absence of better information and partisan identification, voters fall back on familiar and, sometimes, Irish-sounding names. The current court consists of an O’Connor, O’Donnell, O’Neill, and Kennedy. Another O’Donnell is running this fall.

“I got to tell you, I always joke that I’m grateful to my parents for many things, and one of them is naming me Maureen O’Connor, because it’s a great ballot name,” she said. “But we have to be more substantive when we’re naming our judges.”

The League of Women Voters of Ohio embraced the voter-information proposal, but has not taken a position on much of the plan.

Additional information is critical, Executive Director Carrie Davis said. “We have so much voter drop-off in judicial races, and what we’ve learned from polling and focus groups is the main reason is because people feel like they don’t have enough information to make an informed vote.”

Chief Justice O’Connor also proposed increasing judge candidates’ minimum qualifications beyond the current requirement that they have six years as an attorney under their belts.

Her predecessor, the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, had also pursued such change with lawmakers without success. The current court leader did not say what the new qualifications should be.

Among four suggestions made a year ago that did not make the final cut is removing party labels from all judicial ballots. Judge candidates now seek party nominations in primary elections, but the winners then appear on the general-election ballot without party labels.

“Both parties vehemently oppose that, Democrats and Republicans,” the chief justice said. “I joke that if both parties hate it that much, it must be a great idea.”

Her proposal would have gone in the opposite direction of Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern’s desired direction. He has filed a federal lawsuit asking that Ohio law prohibiting partisan labels on general-election ballots be struck down.

The League of Women Voters was disappointed to see Chief Justice O’Connor drop the idea.

“We think judicial independence means independence,” Ms. Davis said.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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