COLUMBUS - It's been nearly three months since voters went to the polls, but lawmakers, justices, and government watchdog groups are still talking about the costly and bitter Ohio Supreme Court races of 2000 and pledging to prevent a repeat performance in 2002.
“Ohio experienced a type of advertising in a judicial campaign never before seen in this state,” Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said yesterday. “The integrity of courts and judicial independence are threatened when judges are politically attacked for the manner in which they exercise their judgment. The danger, a real danger, is that judges will become political.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sued in federal court to halt an Ohio Elections Commission probe into an estimated $1 million in pre-election advertising that suggested that Justice Alice Robie Resnick's votes were swayed by campaign contributions from labor and personal injury lawyers.
The ad campaign piggybacked onto a much larger effort by Citizens for a Strong Ohio, a nonprofit arm of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce that has been critical of Justice Resnick for what they perceived as her anti-business rulings.
It is believed that, after spending from all sides is totaled, about $10 million was spent on two seats on the high court. Despite the ads, the two incumbents were re-elected - Justice Resnick, an Ottawa Hills Democrat, for a third six-year term and Justice Deborah Cook, an Akron Republican, for a second.
“Negative ads do win,” said Justice Resnick at a conference arranged by the government watchdog group Common Cause.
“I'm just thankful Ohioans saw through those ads ... ,” she said. “We must work hard to make sure this doesn't happen again or gets worse.”
Chief Justice Moyer called for an expansion of judicial terms from six years to eight or 10. Justice Resnick went further, calling for 15-year terms with a one-term limit.
The entire group of panel participants called for legislation that would require groups like Strong Ohio to reveal who is funding their effort and how much they are spending. Such groups maintain that they are exercising their right to free speech and are not expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.
Chief Justice Moyer, a Republican, again called for a system of appointing judges as an alternative to election, an idea soundly trounced by Ohio voters 12 years ago.
Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell said he didn't believe such a change would have much impact on the public's perception of the independence of the judiciary.
“I can tell you right now, if you look at Florida [Supreme Court] and the U.S. Supreme Court, there was no lack of accusations that they were anything but impartial,” he said. “They were selected in different ways. The Supreme Court has lifetime terms, but they were accused of being anything but impartial.”