COLUMBUS - Four of the seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court are on the ballot Tuesday, providing a rare opportunity for voters to swing the court's philosophy significantly one way or the other.
This election also guarantees that the next Supreme Court will have a female majority for the second time in its 201-year history.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-2, but philosophically the court is often aligned 4-3 with Republican Justice Paul Pfeifer joining the two Democrats on such hot-button issues as lawsuit reform, school funding, insurance, and workers' compensation.
It came as little surprise that Democrats gave Justice Pfeifer a free pass, leaving three contested races.
All three Republican candidates, including two incumbents, espouse the philosophy of "judicial restraint" mirrored by the court's current majority, generally holding that judges should interpret laws rather than make them.
Democrats have claimed the current all-Republican majority is pro-business and anti-worker. Their three candidates have been more outspoken on issues that could come before the court.
Most attention has focused on the race between Toledo-based appellate Judge Judith Ann Lanzinger, 58, and Cuyuhoga County Common Pleas Judge Nancy A. Fuerst, 53, for the seat to be vacated by retiring Justice Francis Sweeney.
Judge Lanzinger, a Republican backed by the business community, wants to keep the focus on her total of 19 years on the Toledo Municipal Court, Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, and now 6th District Court of Appeals, compared to eight years for Judge Fuerst on the Cuyahoga County bench.
"The whole race is just so under the radar right now," Judge Lanzinger said. "I'm hoping it's going to be more than a name game."
Judge Fuerst, a Democrat with a popular Cuyahoga County political name and backed by most of big labor, wants the focus to be on keeping differing opinions on the court.
"I believe the Constitution guides us in maintaining a level playing field," she said. "I'm not anyone's friend. I'm not anyone's enemy. I'm the judge."
Justice Terrence O'Donnell, 58, a Rocky River Republican appointed last year to a court vacancy, is seeking to complete the two years remaining in the term.
"My duty is to interpret the law and that lends a certain amount of predictability," Justice O'Donnell said.
He faces Democratic opposition from Warren-based appellate Judge William O'Neill, 57, who has pushed the boundaries of Ohio judicial campaigns by speaking out on issues more than any other candidate.
He has criticized lawmakers for again passing legislation restricting how much patients may collect from doctors and insurance companies in malpractice lawsuits after the high court had declared such caps unconstitutional.
"The insurance industry is convincing [doctors] that if they don't do X, Y, and Z, they're not going to have any coverage, and they're all going to be out of business this time tomorrow," he said. "It's all a bald-faced lie."
Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, 65, a Columbus Republican, is running for a fourth, six-year term opposite retired Cleveland Municipal Judge C. Ellen Connally, 59.
The chief justice has the financial advantage, having raised more than $1 million, but his opponent has the advantage of being a Democrat from Democrat-rich Cuyahoga County. Political insiders also believe female candidates have had an advantage worth several percentage points at the polls in judicial races.
"There was the perception for a number of years that there certainly were not enough women judges," Chief Justice Moyer said. "There's some residual of that. It's subjective, but that's no longer true when you look at the makeup of benches all over the state."
But retired Judge Connally said voters opt for female judges for a reason.
"Women take charge and get things done," she said. "I don't think a majority of women would let the school-funding situation get so bad."
The Ohio State Bar Association has rated all three Republicans "highly recommended." Judge O'Neill was rated "recommended" and Judges Fuerst and Connally were labeled "adequate."
Ohio judicial races are considered nonpartisan. There will be no party labels next to candidate names on the ballot.
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