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Published: Friday, 3/26/2010

Bare-knuckle justice

FORMER Ohio Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze, who died this week after a long battle with cancer, will be remembered for many things, not least of which was his support of everyday Ohioans against the interests of big business. His most enduring legacy, however, may have been the introduction of bare-knuckle politics and big-money elections to the state's highest court.

Mr. Celebrezze was part of a prominent Democratic family that included his uncle, Anthony Celebrezze, a five-term mayor of Cleveland and Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; cousin Anthony J. Celebrezze, Jr., who was Ohio's attorney general and secretary of state; and brother James, who served with him on the Ohio Supreme Court.

Frank Celebrezze spent one term in the Ohio Senate and eight years as a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge before his election to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1972. He became chief justice in 1978, and it was evident by the early 1980s that Cleveland-style, rough-and-tumble politics had gained a foothold on the previously nonpolitical court.

It culminated in Mr. Celebrezze's epic 1986 re-election battle against Thomas Moyer, who accused the chief justice of using the lawyer disciplinary system to punish enemies, attacking judges and lawyers who disagreed with him, and using state aircraft for political appearances. Numerous Blade editorials detailed Mr. Celebrezze's heavy-handed tactics, including attempts to legislate from the bench. He was the subject of an unflattering Cleveland Plain Dealer series, "A law unto himself," that catalogued his alleged abuses of power.

Mr. Celebrezze sued the Cleveland newspaper over allegations that he had accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from union locals with reputed ties to organized crime. The $10 million suit eventually was settled to his satisfaction, but the damage had been done: Mr. Celebrezze had lost his seat on the high court.

The Moyer court - except for a famous scuffle between Justices Andy Douglas and Craig White that left the Toledo jurist with three broken ribs - has been a more civil place than it was under Chief Justice Celebrezze. Not less partisan, just more civil, but that has been enough for Ohio voters for whom Mr. Celebrezze left such a bitter taste that they have been reluctant ever since to trust Democratic candidates for the high court.

Of equal long-term importance, however, was the cost of the 1986 campaign, in which each candidate spent more than $1 million, an unprecedented amount at the time. These days, incumbent justices almost routinely raise more than that amount each election cycle. The fiction may remain that judicial races are nonpartisan, but the reality is that money continues to play a big role.

Even today, few people are neutral about Frank Celebrezze. To some, he remains the champion of the little guy. For others, he will forever be associated with the worst excesses of partisan politics.

But love him or hate him, he undeniably raised the ante in Supreme Court elections.

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