COLUMBUS — Attaching partisan labels to judicial candidates sends a “miscue” to the public that politics influences their decisions, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor told a panel pondering changes to the state constitution Thursday.
The Republican chief justice proposes eliminating party labels when judicial candidates appear on Ohio primary election ballots. Such a move could lead to two members of the same party advancing to the general election where judicial candidates appear without partisan labels.
She disagreed that in an era where voters complain they have little information on judicial candidates, a partisan label provides some information.
“A party label would send a cue, but I think it sends a miscue,” Chief Justice O’Connor said. “It’s not relevant. It shouldn’t be relevant."
The chief justice has been discussing several potential changes in how Ohio judges are elected. Some of those changes would require constitutional amendments.
The end of partisan judicial primaries, however, would not. The Ohio Constitution Modernization Commission includes lawmakers who could directly change that.
“Democrats and Republicans both hate it, so there must be something worthwhile in it,” she said.
She urged the panel to act next year to put a least one proposed constitutional amendment before voters, one that would move judicial elections to odd-numbered years. That change would mean judicial candidates would not have to compete over the din of presidential, gubernatorial, and other federal and state campaigns.
She said that proposal is the most popular with members of the public who have weighed in at ohiocourts2013.org, a Web site created to generate input on what she calls “topics of discussion.”
The switch to nonpartisan primaries can be accomplished by lawmakers and the governor without a vote of the people. Proposals to increase the lengths of judicial terms, raise the minimum qualifications for attorneys to run for judge, and to provide information about candidates, could also be handled legislatively.
But proposals to move away from even-numbered judicial election years and give the Ohio Senate a limited window to weigh in on a governor’s appointment of a judge to a vacancy would require changing the Constitution.
The 32-member bipartisan commission — consisting of current and former legislators, a former governor, academics, judges, attorneys, and others — was created to discuss potential changes to the state’s Constitution.
A member of Chief Justice O’Connor’s bench, Justice Judith French, serves as a commissioner. She was appointed before she joined the high court.
Chief Justice O’Connor later told reporters she saw no conflict in a judge serving on a panel making decisions that affect the Constitution that will guide their own future rulings.
“They’re not exercising their judicial capacity here…,” she said. “I’m looking at this group as a group of citizens that have come together to become part of this commission. …This is a totally different animal.”
The commission’s recommendations would have to win approval of three-fifths of state lawmakers before going to voters for consideration.
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