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Published: Saturday, 6/15/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Toward better courts

Ohio’s chief justice offers intriguing suggestions for improving the way we elect the state’s judges

Ohioans continue to insist on the right to elect the state’s judges. We demand accountability, even though many of us don’t bother to vote in judicial elections and complain that we know next to nothing about the candidates.

The Blade has long believed that Ohio would do better to select judges on the basis of professional merit rather than popular election. But because that won’t happen soon, if ever, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor suggests the next best thing: strengthening the way we elect judges.

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Justice O’Connor is inviting Ohioans to consider and debate eight issues related to judicial elections. Several of the proposals would require changes in state law or the Ohio Constitution.

She notes that judicial elections in Ohio get 25 percent less voter participation, on average, than races at the top of the ballot. She suggests two ways to combat this decline: moving judicial races higher on all ballots, and holding state and county judicial elections in odd-numbered years (when elections for municipal judgeships already occur), so they would be less likely to compete with more attention-grabbing contests and ballot issues.

Voter turnout in off-year elections tends to be notoriously low. But Ms. O’Connor plausibly suggests that the potential for greater voter attention to judicial races in those years would be an acceptable trade-off.

Justice O’Connor notes that most Ohio judges do not get their first judgeships by election, but rather are named by the governor to fill a vacancy. Allowing a nominating commission to propose candidates for such appointments would enhance their quality and diversity.

She raises a related question of whether the state Senate should confirm appointments to the Ohio Supreme Court. The logjam caused by obstructionist Republicans in the U.S. Senate over President Obama’s judicial nominees suggests the need for caution in this area.

Justice O’Connor asks whether attorneys should be required to have more legal experience before they become judges; they should. Similarly, she asks whether judges’ terms should be lengthened so they can concentrate more on their jobs and less on re-election campaigns; they should.

Ohio is the only state in which judges run in partisan primaries and nonpartisan general elections. That bizarre aberration deserves to go: Voters should have better ways than party affiliation to predict how a judge is likely to perform.

To that end, Justice O’Connor calls for a public information campaign to educate Ohioans about judicial elections. Among the possible elements she suggests: a statewide Web site that would provide information about judicial candidates, televised debates among candidates, and expanded use of TV cameras in courtrooms.

More-accessible data about the sources and amounts of contributions to judicial candidates’ campaigns would be useful as well. So would statistics on how often judges are reversed on appeal.

Judges could do much more to demystify the court system. Judicial candidates often cite legal ethics as an excuse to reduce their campaigns to bland slogans about how they are “tough on crime” or “fair to all.” Without signaling how they would rule in particular cases, why should candidates not address in general terms their positions on abortion rights, or the death penalty, or gun control?

Ms. O’Connor told The Blade’s editorial board last week that she hopes to offer a final proposal by the end of this year. In the meantime, Ohioans who say they care about judicial accountability can prove it by going to OhioCourts2013.org and joining the valuable conversation the chief justice has started.



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