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Published: Wednesday, 7/16/2003

New justices named to hear O'Connor complaint

Maureen O'Connor is accused of misrepresenting herself as a judge in this ad last year. Maureen O'Connor is accused of misrepresenting herself as a judge in this ad last year.
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COLUMBUS - In a highly unusual move, a new Ohio Supreme Court was named yesterday for the sole purpose of considering motions stemming from a judicial conduct complaint filed against one of its own, Justice Maureen O'Connor.

The court is caught in the middle of a dispute between the Republican justice, who joined the court on Jan. 1, and Ohio Court of Appeals Chief Justice William H. Wolff, a Democrat.

Chief Justice Wolff earlier this year exercised his prerogative of resurrecting a complaint that was filed prior to the November, 2002, election but withdrawn afterwards.

With Justice O'Connor not participating, the court unanimously agreed to name the seven most-senior members of the District Courts of Appeals who were available and not otherwise disqualified because of potential conflicts with the case.

The appointees include five Republicans and two Democrats, which matches the permanent court's political makeup.

The temporary court includes Republican Judges Rupert Doan, based in Cincinnati; William Baird, Akron; Donna Bowman, Columbus; Judith Christley, Warren, and William Harsha, Circleville, and Democrats William Young, Middletown, and Peggy Bryant, Columbus.

The last time the entire court was recused was in 1993 when a case that Justice Paul Pfeifer had been involved in worked its way through the appeals process to the high court.

In his 2002 complaint against then Lt. Gov. O'Connor, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Dennis White alleged she had misrepresented herself as a sitting judge by appearing in a campaign commercial shot last fall that showed her in a black robe presiding from a courtroom bench. She had not served as a judge since early 1995.

Lettering in the corner of the screen noted her years of judicial service, but an Ohio Court of Appeals panel, by a vote of 2-1, found probable cause that she'd violated a provision of the Code of Judicial Canons stating a judicial candidate cannot “knowingly misrepresent his or her identity, qualifications, present position, or other fact.”

Judge Wolff, who had yet to ascend to chief justice, was one of the majority votes. After the election, Mr. White dropped his complaint, but Chief Justice Wolff refiled it.

“The Republicans control the Supreme Court,” he said. “She's a Republican. Why should I spend valuable resources on something when I'm not sure the outcome would be worth the investment. If I ran a stop sign out here, I'd probably get a stiffer fine even if they found her guilty.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, attracted to the free-speech angle of the case, is helping Justice O'Connor in her attempt to have the lower chief justice disqualified.

In court filings, Chief Justice Wolff maintains he's never ruled on the merits of the complaint against Justice O'Connor. But as chief justice, he would name the five-judge panel that would hear the case as well as the person who'd prosecute it.

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