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Published: Sunday, 9/28/2008

Incumbent says court must project 'image of stability'

The 2002 election of Justice
Maureen O Connor to the Ohio
Supreme Court led to a conservative realignment of the panel. The 2002 election of Justice Maureen O Connor to the Ohio Supreme Court led to a conservative realignment of the panel.

Justice Maureen O'Connor's election in 2002 marked a watershed for the Ohio Supreme Court.

The addition of Ms. O'Connor, a Republican, changed a court that had infuriated Ohio's business community and Republican-controlled government in decisions affecting school funding, lawsuit reform, workers' compensation, and insurance contracts.

In one of the first opinions written by Justice O'Connor, a new 4-to-3 conservative majority took the rare step of reversing a prior decision of the court. The new decision resulted in fewer lawsuits filed against auto insurers.

On Nov. 4, Justice O'Connor, 57, of Cleveland Height - a former county prosecutor, county judge, and Gov. Bob Taft's first lieutenant governor - is asking voters to elect her to a second term.

"We just need to project that image of stability [for business], especially in these troubled economic times, so if there's someone who's thinking about coming to Ohio, there's a reason for them to come," she said.

Today, Republicans control all seven seats on the Ohio Supreme Court. The only holdout from that now long-gone majority that critics liked to label "judicial activist" is Justice Paul Pfeifer, a fellow Republican who often voted with Democratic justices.

But there are still the occasional splintered cases such as the recent 4-3 decision that prohibited city bans on guns in public parks.

Last year, the court finally upheld a law long sought by business to cap noneconomic damages in product liability, personal injury, and other civil lawsuits.

Justice O'Connor's Democratic opponent, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Russo, has pointed to her victory speech in 2002 when she thanked doctors for helping to elect her. She predicted "their efforts will pay off toward restoring confidence, not only in our physicians and their ability to continue to treat patients but in hospitals and treatment facilities across the state of Ohio."

"We now have articles being written about our court nationally," Judge Russo said. "The New York Times examined this, and they say it is routine for members of the Ohio Supreme Court to vote with their contributors 70 percent of the time. There's also a [League of Women Voters] study that said 83 percent of Ohio voters believe that our justices in some shape or form are affected by the money."

Heavily supported in her campaigns by the medical and insurance industries, Justice O'Connor insists her 2002 comment was not made because of campaign contributions.

"Look at the cases that have been appealed to us by doctors who've been defendants ... who've had judgments against them, and the Supreme Court wouldn't take their cases," she said. "We let the appellate court decisions stand."

She also noted that Ohio Right to Life, which supported her in 2002, has not backed her this time. She pointed to her vote in a 4-3 decision that permitted parents of a child born with severe birth defects to sue a doctor for the costs of medical care related to pregnancy after failing to diagnose a prenatal genetic condition that might have otherwise led to a decision to abort. "They endorsed me six years ago, so if you want to be cynical and say she votes with her constituents. there's a perfect example where it doesn't work that way," she said.

She also pointed to the 2006 unanimous ruling she wrote that upheld individual private property rights against the government's taking of nonblighted property to make way for more lucrative economic development.

"Everybody who tried to second-guess us said they're going to go with big business, the homeowners are going to lose out, [and] property owners are going to be subservient to the needs of big business and economic development," said Justice O'Connor. "Just the opposite happened, and everybody was stunned that the court had ruled the way it did.

"That's not a Republican ruling," she said. "That's not a Democrat ruling."

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