What's in a name? Plenty


One of the shockers in last week’s election was the defeat of a Republican and a Democratic Ohio Supreme Court justice by challengers who had no reasonable expectation of victory. The election of William O’Neill and Sharon Kennedy to the high court makes a good case for choosing judges based on merit.

Democrat Yvette McGee Brown was a highly rated sitting justice with plenty of campaign cash. Her Republican opponent, Ms. Kennedy, was a former police officer, lawyer, and judge whose candidacy was rejected by the state’s police union and bar association. Yet voters chose Ms. Kennedy by a wide margin.

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State Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern blamed Ms. Brown’s defeat on name recognition. He suggested that Democrats saw the name Kennedy and assumed she must be the Democratic candidate, costing Ms. Brown the election. Mr. Redfern’s solution is to put party labels on Supreme Court ballots in the general election.

Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett said the same thing happened to Republican Justice Robert Cupp, the incumbent who was more highly rated than Mr. O’Neill. Mr. Bennett told the Associated Press that in his native Cuyahoga County, “we elect anybody with a good Irish-American name, even if they wind up going to jail later.”

State party leaders assume that voters know almost nothing about judicial candidates. Their solution isn’t to educate the electorate, but to put party labels on the ballot so voters don’t have to think.

That is an irrational way to select people who can deprive their fellow citizens of their liberty and property.

Judges are chosen in a variety of ways across the United States. In some states, they are chosen by voters in partisan or nonpartisan elections, or in a combination of the two, as in Ohio. In a few states, they are appointed by governors or legislatures.

In still others, a judge is nominated by a nonpartisan panel, then appointed by the governor.

Politics plays a part in each system. But a merit system has advantages over electing judges or handing the process over to blatantly partisan governors and state legislatures.

Merit selection takes money out of the equation. Many judicial candidates are uncomfortable with fund raising. They recognize that donations from people or companies that may have business before the court creates at least the impression of impropriety.

In 2006, the New York Times reported that Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who was re-elected easily last week, sided with contributors a remarkable 91 percent of the time. Mr. O’Neill attacked Justice Cupp for accepting donations from FirstEnergy Corp., which had a case before the high court.

Most voters have little contact with judges and know little about them. They vote for a name they know or against a judge they have a bad experience with. Learning about judicial candidates is difficult, especially with little media attention on them.

A merit system puts the selection process in the hands of people who will evaluate the credentials of judicial candidates. That has to be better than choosing judges, as Ohio voters appear to have done, based on the ethnicity of their names.