COLUMBUS — Now that he’s running for re-election for the first time, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Robert Cupp said he understands what the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer was talking about when he criticized how Ohio elects judges.
The Republican justice is asking voters on Nov. 6 to give him a second six-year term on a court that shows few signs of the discord that once made headlines. He faces opposition from former appellate Judge William M. O’Neill, a Democrat who has made the way judicial elections are financed a central theme of his campaign.
“The court has rules under the Code of Judicial Conduct with fairly strict limits on what any individual can contribute and when they can contribute,’’ Justice Cupp said.
“There’s only one year out of five that there’s any fund-raising for an individual justice. The rules say that if it is within that limit, it is permissible. It’s not a conflict. It’s not improper. I’m following the rules,’’ Justice Cupp said.
Mr. O’Neill recently filed a disciplinary complaint against Justice Cupp, alleging that the justice was wrong to sit on a case involving FirstEnergy when the utility and individuals associated with it gave to his campaign committee between the time the case was argued and the court ruled in the utility’s favor.
“In my view, campaign contributions follow philosophy,’’ Justice Cupp said. “People support a candidate that has the same view about the role of a judge and not because they tend to influence the outcome of any specific case.’’
Mr. O’Neill’s complaint was later dismissed by a three-judge panel.
“I am not saying that case was fixed,’’ Mr. O’Neill said. “What I am saying is it appears to have been fixed.
“It is the appearance of impropriety that has to be avoided if we are going to defend the integrity of the judiciary in Ohio,” the challenger said. “A sixth-grade civics class could get this question right.”
Although justices run in partisan primaries, they appear on the general election ballot without party labels.
Justice Cupp represented an Allen County district in the Ohio Senate for 16 years and dealt with issues such as lawsuit reform, sentencing, workers’ compensation, and education issues that sometimes made their way to the high court. Just he and Justice Paul Pfeifer, who also served in the Senate, came to the bench with a lawmaking background.
“It’s helpful as a context,’’ he said. “If you know how the legislature goes about putting together a statute, then when a question comes up as to its meaning, I can sometimes point you in the right direction … It’s a useful part of our discussion and deliberations.’’
After term limits forced him from the Senate, he returned to the Allen County Courthouse as commissioner for two years before being elected to the Lima-based 3rd District Court of Appeals. He was there for three years before following through with a long-planned campaign for the Supreme Court.
Before becoming a state senator, he served as Lima city prosecutor and an earlier stint as county commissioner.
The Ohio State Bar Association has rated Justice Cupp “highly recommended,’’ its second-highest rating, while giving Mr. O’Neill a “recommended.’’
“I have a broader background and experience in the law and various aspects,’’ Justice Cupp said. “I have legislative experience that he doesn’t have. I was an elected local government official, which he doesn’t have. I’ve served on the Supreme Court for six years, which he doesn’t have.’’
With much of the focus and money this cycle seemingly on the presidential and U.S. Senate races, Justice Cupp agreed that Supreme Court races are getting less attention.
“I attribute that to maybe two things — one, a high-profile presidential race and Senate race, but also, the court has charted a stable, consistent, legal environment,’’ he said. “Things are fine, and everybody knows they’re fine. So what’s to worry about?’’
With Justice Cupp’s election in 2006, the high court became a rare all-Republican court. The court is currently 6-1 Republican with the appointment of Democratic Justice Yvette McGee Brown to the bench last year.
“I don’t think there’s any partisan divide,’’ he said. “There’s sometimes a little philosophical divide, but that isn’t that great either. It’s a phenomenon that two people can look at the same thing and in good faith come to different conclusions, so we have some 4-3 decisions and 5-2 decisions. We’ve had some very vigorous discussions … but it’s professional, courteous, civil, and not at all partisan.’’
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.