COLUMBUS - Candidates for Ohio Supreme Court last night disagreed on whether campaign money influences the court's decisions as well as how much deference should be paid the General Assembly when it comes to making law.
Although candidates were not asked about issues that might come before the court, the pair of forums for chief justice and two contested associate justice seats on the high court demonstrated how court elections have taken a more traditional political turn in recent years.
"When the Ohio General Assembly encroaches on the constitution of Ohio, it is entitled to no deference," said Warren-based appellate Judge William O'Neill, Democrat challenger to Justice Terrence O'Donnell.
"They are on forbidden ground," he said. "It's the job of the Ohio Supreme Court to act as a direct check and balance. I resist the suggestion that deference is due to the General Assembly. I would suggest deference is due to the Ohio Supreme Court in constitutional matters."
But Justice O'Donnell, seeking to complete the two years left in the term to which he was appointed last year, disagreed about the court's role.
"It's the legislature's prerogative to make laws and to consider the viewpoints of interest groups," he said. "The judicial role is to administer the law and be faithful to the rule of law. That is the oath judges take."
Republicans dominate the court 5-2, but philosophically the court often aligns 4-3 on such issues as civil lawsuit reform, school funding, and workers compensation.
The three Republicans all espouse the philosophy of judicial restraint, which generally states they will interpret law passed by the General Assembly, not make law from the bench. The philosophy mirrors that of the current all-Republican majority.
The Democrats, however, had been more outspoken on issues.
At stake could be decisions on laws capping jury awards in medical malpractice and product liability cases and making it tougher to file lawsuits related to asbestos exposure.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy Fuerst, a Democrat, pointed to a survey to demonstrate there is a problem with public perception as to whether special interests can influence decisions.
"Eighty-three percent of those polled feel money does affect outcomes," she said. "You need only look at these races and how much money has been spent by special interests. You have to wonder what is at stake. I understand why that perception persists."
Her Republican opponent, Toledo appellate Judge Judith Ann Lanzinger, took issue with that perception.
"Anyone who thinks giving to a judicial candidate is going to get something in return is very mistaken," she said. "We cannot promise to vote in a particular way. We can promise impartiality, open-mindedness, fairness, and following the law."
Judges Lanzinger and Fuerst are vying for the seat to be vacated by retiring Justice Francis Sweeney, one of the two Democrats.
The four candidates for associate justice participated in one hour-long forum and the order with which candidates answered questions was staggered so that they were not always paired with their challengers.
However, Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, a Columbus Republican, and his opponent, retired Cleveland Municipal Judge C. Ellen Connally, a Democrat, participated in a separate 30-minute forum.
Asked about how to improve court efficiency, retired Judge Connally blamed judges.
"The most effective method we could use is making sure every court starts on time," she said. "People come to court. They're in the hallway, in the courtroom, and the judge is not there. Every judge should work as hard as the working people of Ohio. I'm tired of going to courthouses and seeking people waiting around."
Chief Justice Moyer, seeking his fourth six-year term, said the high court already plays a role for local courts.
"I see the court as a resource for courts around the state to be consultants for case management plans. ," he said. "We have two people who do nothing except go to courts and help with technology. The same with mediation. The court is a very rich resource for courts around the state to simply functions more efficiently."
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