COLUMBUS — A formidable force in elections, drawing more Ohio votes as a Republican than Democratic President Barack Obama did in 2008, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor has set her sights on a promotion.
"I am a leader on the court,'' she said "I know that I am. I was the only justice who was running until [Chief Justice Thomas Moyer] passed away. None of my colleagues felt that they were going to challenge me to do this.''
If successful, she would become the first female chief justice in Ohio history.
"We had a female majority for about five minutes,'' Justice O'Connor said. "It shouldn't affect the way you rule on a case. I'm talking about the presence of women just for the perception of that — excellent role models for young women and young men, who say, ‘I can do anything in this state or this country. You've got a female chief justice.'"
In her second term on the court, the former lieutenant governor, Summit County Common Pleas Court judge, and county prosecutor has squared off against a colleague, Chief Justice Eric Brown. The chief was appointed to the top position of Ohio's top court in April by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in the wake of Chief Justice Moyer's unexpected death.
The Ohio State Bar Association has rated her "highly recommended.'' Chief Justice Brown received the lesser rating of "recommended.''
Chief Justice Brown is the sole Democrat on the seven-member bench. While Justice O'Connor also talks about gender and racial diversity in the courts and the legal profession, she doesn't extend that to partisan diversity, which Democrats have argued would benefit Ohioans.
"I think that shouts that they have no clue what this job is all about,'' she said. "If you bring your politics to the decision-making process, you don't belong in this job. That rhetoric contributes to the misperception by the public of what the job of a judge is.''
Justice O'Connor, 59, characterizes herself as the court's swing vote, taking pride that she's usually swings in the direction of the majority in 4-3 decisions and saying she sometimes brings fellow justices with her. She rarely writes dissenting opinions and isn't a big fan of concurring opinions, in which a justice agrees with the majority but feels the need for further explanation.
In making the case that he has the better temperament to lead the court, Chief Justice Brown points to one such concurring opinion.
"Justice O'Connor has spoken in the past about the court speaking with one voice, that she does not like dissenting voices,'' said Chief Justice Brown. "In one instance, she used her concurring opinion to criticize Justice [Paul] Pfeifer's dissent.''
The 5-2 decision struck down Gov. Ted Strickland's attempt on his first day in office in 2007 to veto a bill that his GOP predecessor, Gov. Bob Taft, had indicated he intended to allow to become law without his signature. Justice O'Connor used her concurring opinion to challenge Justice Pfeifer's contention that the majority had maneuvered politically.
In that ruling, the court ordered Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to accept and process a bill limiting jury awards in consumer-protection cases and prohibiting broad public-nuisance lawsuits such as one filed by Toledo against the lead-based paint industry.
She also wrote a concurring opinion that year when the court unanimously upheld an Ohio law and Toledo ordinance automatically designating the pit bull to inherently be a vicious dog.
"My philosophy is there's no bad dog, just bad owners,'' Justice O'Connor said.
"I have that perspective because of my experience with dogs. Was it a hard thing for me to do? I looked at the law. Would there be a way that I could declare that law to be wrong and void and retain intellectual, judicial, and legal integrity? I came to the conclusion that, no, there was not.''
Earlier this year, Justice O'Connor recused herself from consideration of whether a former political supporter, former coin dealer and Lucas County Republican Chairman Tom Noe, should be allowed to appeal his theft conviction stemming from his handling of a state workers' compensation investment fund. The court refused to hear Noe's appeal.
"I think I could have voted effectively and impartially on that, and I would not have differed from the replacement [district appellate judge)]," she said. "I recused myself and didn't hear the case. I do that for consistency, but I think justice was afforded."