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Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor may not be convinced that Judge Dale Crawford did anything wrong in the Steven Kraus case, but she assigned a new judge anyway. Sometimes that’s what it takes to uphold, not just the integrity, but the appearance of integrity of an institution such as Ohio’s judiciary.
Kraus, who defeated Chris Redfern for a seat in the General Assembly, lost the seat when he was convicted of feloniously stealing from an elderly woman. He claims that Mr. Redfern spoke to the county prosecutor about the case before he was indicted — and that Mr. Redfern has social ties with Judge Crawford. He thinks he has presented “strong evidence of interference with criminal proceedings for political purposes.”
Kraus is seeking a new trial.
In his attempt to restore his good name, Kraus is offering a conspiracy theory — but conspiracy theories can turn out to be true. When there is even the slightest possibility that a conspiracy has abused the criminal process, the courts must give themselves the best possible opportunity to vindicate themselves.
If Kraus was the victim of politicized justice involving one of Judge Crawford’s friends, and if the evidence shows it, and if the interference undermines the verdict in such a way as to require a new trial — a lot of ifs — then asking Judge Crawford to issue the ruling would be a test of his integrity. Hopefully he’d pass, and rule in Kraus’ favor. But if he failed, he might rule against Kraus.
Now suppose Judge Crawford honorably ruled against Kraus. Suppose that that’s exactly what the evidence requires. Even if any judge looking at the same evidence would reach the same conclusion, and even if Judge Crawford is a man of perfect integrity, that ruling would be hard to distinguish from one affected by bias.
These problems don’t arise with a new judge who there’s no reason to think has a conflict of interest.
We should all hope that Judge Crawford, and all our judges, have the integrity to follow the evidence and the law even when it leads them to personally unpleasant conclusions. But a casual observer can’t judge a person’s integrity. It’s much easier to see the integrity of a system when it avoids a situation that might, in the worst-case scenario, lead to a biased result. Chief Justice O’Connor made the right call.
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