COLUMBUS - A U.S. Supreme Court ruling removing the gag from judicial candidates could erode public trust in the impartiality of the courts, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court said yesterday.
Ohio and many other states that elect judges prohibited judicial candidates from answering questions about how they feel about the death penalty, abortion, tort reform, and other issues that might come before their court.
In line with the 5-4 decision that a Minnesota rule violated the free speech rights of candidates, Chief Justice Thomas Moyer plans to ask his fellow justices to remove a similar provision from Ohio's rules of judicial conduct.
“Judicial races are going to be conducted more like races for every other office,” Justice Moyer said. “We work so hard trying to convince people that judges really are impartial when sitting on a case. This ruling makes it more difficult to convince people of that.”
A prohibition against candidates promising how they'd rule on certain cases will continue to stand, but critics note that can be a fine line to tread.
“A lot of candidates are going to be troubled by this ruling,” said Barbara Reed, director of Constitution Project's courts initiative.
“Most judges really do put their personal beliefs aside and apply the law, however distasteful they may find it,” she said. “They want people to know to know generally that they support the death penalty, but they don't want people to expect them to use it all the time,” he said.
The nonprofit Constitution Project is working with the Ohio Bar Association and League of Women Voters in developing a voluntary code of conduct for the campaign.
It remains unclear what impact this will have on contests for the two Supreme Court seats on the ballot on Nov. 5.
Campaign strategist Mark Weaver has worked on eight Supreme Court campaigns, including the current bid of Republican Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor.
“The lieutenant governor has made statements about abortion and death penalty throughout her career,” Mr. Weaver said. “She's pro-life and for the death penalty. She would be allowed to give that answer without committing herself. But school funding is a pending case. She wouldn't be able to say anything about that.”
Ms. O'Connor faces opposition from Democrat Hamilton County Municipal Judge Tim Black for the seat to be vacated by Toledo Republican Justice Andy Douglas.
“Candidates should speak freely about what they believe but not judiciously about how they will rule,” said Judge Black. “I don't know how I will rule until I see the evidence and know the issues.”