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Published: Thursday, 10/19/2006

Ohio court rivals split on influence of campaign cash

BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Voters believe justice is for sale in Ohio, Democrats running for state Supreme Court charged yesterday.

That perception is wrong, countered their Republican opponents.

In a Statehouse debate, four candidates vying for two seats on Ohio's highest court disagreed over the influence of campaign cash on rulings while defending the right of Ohioans to elect their justices.

"[Justice Terrence O'Donnell] is working on his third million dollars to be elected to the Supreme Court [in three elections]," said Warren-based appellate Judge William O'Neill, a Democrat.

"It's not possible to raise a million dollars for Supreme Court and not sit on your contributors' cases."

Justice O'Donnell, an appointed Republican seeking his first full six-year term, challenged a recent New York Times finding that Ohio's justices on average sided with contributors 70 percent of the time and that he led the way at 91 percent.

"The perception of the public is not reality," he said.

"They only looked at 32 of 26,000 [cases].

"... Judges make decisions based on what the law is and what the facts are."

For the first time in Ohio's history there is the potential with this election that the state's Supreme Court could be made up entirely of members of a single party.

The court is 6-1 Republican with the sole Democrat, Justice Alice Robie Resnick of Ottawa Hills, about to retire.

Lima-based appellate Judge Robert Cupp, a Republican, and Columbus attorney Ben Espy, a Democrat, are vying to replace her. Both are ex-state senators.

"At the present time, our system is to elect judges with character and integrity who decide cases based upon the law," said Mr. Cupp.

Mr. Espy, however, pointed out that Ohio's business community has spent $1.3 million to promote the two Republicans.

"The perception is that justice is for sale," he said. "To change that, you have to go to some form of public financing."

Both Democrats took aim at the court's handling of past decisions in which the court's majority ruled that the state's method of funding public schools unconstitutionally places students living in property-poor districts at a competitive disadvantage. Justice O'Donnell has yet to sit on such a case.

"The Supreme Court made an error in that case because they not only found school funding unconstitutional, but failed to propose a remedy," Mr. Espy said. "Any court that finds the law unconstitutional, they should impose a remedy to replace it."

Judge O'Neill repeated his opinion that the General Assembly remains in contempt of court for failing to enact a constitutional system.

Judge Cupp did not address specific cases, but repeated his philosophy about rulings.

"I don't believe the Supreme Court is an alternative General Assembly," he said.

Justice O'Donnell chose to highlight a recent popular ruling in which the court limited local governments' authority to condemn nonblighted private property strictly for economic development purposes.

"It restored the rights of property owners across Ohio," he said. "That comes as a common-sense decision from the Ohio Supreme Court."

-Jim Provance



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