COLUMBUS — This marks the third time that William M. O’Neill has taken on the uphill task of challenging a Republican incumbent on the Ohio Supreme Court.
But this time the Democratic pediatric emergency room nurse and former northeast Ohio appellate judge figures his message of not mixing cash with the judiciary is taking hold as Internet social media matures and the deep-pocket interests that previously helped to bankroll GOP candidates already have been picked by the presidential and U.S. Senate races.
“It’s a message of the ages, and it’s a message that is unique throughout the judiciary,” Mr. O’Neill said. “The phrase I use on the campaign trail that seems to be most effective: ‘God forbid you’re in court. Do you really want your case to be decided by a judge who took $100 contribution from your opponent’s lawyer at a cocktail party?’"
Mr. O’Neill, 65, is taking on Justice Robert Cupp of Lima, who is seeking his second six-year term on the state's top court. As he did in 2004 and 2006, Mr. O’Neill this year defeated the candidate backed by the Ohio Democratic Party machine to get the party’s nomination in the primary election. The two prior times, he lost the general election to Justice Terrence O’Donnell.
No Democrat has won a seat on the top court since 2000. The court is currently 6-1 Republican with the sole Democrat, Justice Yvette McGee Brown, having been appointed to a vacated term.
Mr. O’Neill has sworn off all campaign contributions as he points to money from utilities, lawyers, and others contributed to Justice Cupp.
“There is so much money out there being spent on TV right now,” Mr. O’Neill said. “The old model used to be, if you want to be a Supreme Court justice, you raise $1 million and you spend it all on TV in the last 10 days … It doesn’t work this year for two reasons.
“If you wait until the final 10 days, 30 percent of the vote will already be in, so you will have missed 30 percent of your target,” he said. “Two, with Obama, Romney, Brown, and Mandel owning the airwaves this year, they have done a good job of turning off the public.”’
Justice Cupp said voters rejected the notion that money buys rulings in Ohio.
“It creates a perception that, in fact, some cases sometimes are decided based on who the contributors are, and I haven’t seen that,” he said. “I don’t do it. I haven’t seen others do it. I think that was the big debate in 2000. That was almost uniformly rejected as not being the case, but yet somebody can make political hay out of it. I think it does a disservice to the judiciary and the judicial process.”
Mr. O’Neill, of South Russell in Geauga County, served a decade on the Warren-based 11th District Court of Appeals, two of those years as presiding judge. He stepped down in 2010 to mount an unsuccessful challenge to Republican U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette in the northeastern corner of the state.
“I have more judicial experience than Bob Cupp,’’ the former judge said. “He’s in his ninth year right now. I’ve done 10 and a half.’’
The Ohio State Bar Association has rated Mr. O’Neill “recommended’’ for the top court, giving his opponent a “highly recommended’’ rating.
Mr. O’Neill currently works as a hospital pediatric nurse at Hillcrest Hospital in Cleveland, having studied to become a registered nurse while he was still on the appellate bench.
Mr. O’Neill is not shy about talking about issues that could work their way to the court.
The Supreme Court repeatedly had ruled the state’s system of funding K-12 schools to be unconstitutional, but following its last ruling in 2003, it relinquished jurisdiction. There has been no such case before the court since Justice Cupp joined it in 2007.
“Everyone in Ohio is aware that the educational foundation of our government is crumbling,” Mr. O’Neill said. “The Ohio General Assembly’s solution to that implosion of education in Ohio is to sell the school buildings off one at a time to a highest bidder, and they want to use the words ‘charter schools.’
“It’s absolute boloney, but take my personal preferences out of this,”’ he said. “It’s unconstitutional. What they’re doing is not thorough and efficient … There will be a new school funding case before the Ohio Supreme Court, and I hope to be on the court when it arrives.”