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Published: Friday, 2/2/2007

Will merit finally matter?

JUDICIAL appointments are usually among the political plums the party in charge values most highly. So what is Gov. Ted Strickland doing when he turns his back on the practice of divvying out seats on the bench based on party affiliation, and suggests that there be some bipartisan input into the selection process?

For one thing, he's eschewing past practice in Ohio, which has been the domain of the Republicans the last 16 years.

For another, he's putting Ohio in line with a majority of other states - 32 others, to be precise - that have a screening process for selecting judicial appointees, rather than relying solely on party affiliation.

He has named a five-member panel, including Republican attorney Charles (Rocky) Saxbe of Columbus, augmented by local representatives from the areas in which there are vacancies, to recommend candidates it believes to be most qualified.

No prizes for guessing that the vast majority of these candidates will no doubt be Democrats. That's the nature of the game. But the very creation of the committee, and the commitment, at least in principle, to a more bipartisan, qualifications-based selection process is welcome.

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, state representative from Catawba Island, talks of the importance of transparency and the removal of politics from the judicial selection process.

He's right, although the former will surely be more easy to accomplish than the latter - as even he alludes to with his caveat, "I'm confident that the most qualified Democrat would be selected."

And Ohio Citizen Action's Catherine Turcer says that "you're never going to create a pure, squeaky-clean process when it comes to appointing qualified judges."

Possibly not. At least in the immediate future. But with the process Mr. Strickland is establishing, helping in his words to "ensure that the most qualified judges will carry out the critical role of presiding over the courts in Ohio," there is the appearance of even-handedness.

Any system is worth exploring that makes even small strides away from the practices of 16 years of Republican rule, under which there was a "no vacancy" sign hung outside courtrooms for Democrats seeking a judicial appointment.

As we noted after the November election, we did not want to see the Democrats consumed with a bad case of "it's our turn" retribution. Governor Strickland's new idea is a hopeful sign toward a more responsible approach.

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