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Published: Friday, 11/20/2009

Ohio judicial elections tested

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Even North Carolina state Rep. Chris Heagarty knows the name Alice Resnick and can recite the attack ad allegations made against the former Ohio Supreme Court justice nine years ago.

"I'm from almost a time zone away, and I saw how awful those ads were," he told a crowd of justices, judges, lawyers, politicians, and citizen group representatives gathered yesterday to consider whether there is a better way for Ohio to pick its high court justices.

And if there is an alternative to the financial arms race, will Ohio voters have the stomach for it?

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer convened the two-day forum. He's been very successful with the current system, but doesn't have to face campaign fund-raising again thanks to mandatory retirement.

"I've been there four times, and I'm here to tell you that the path we travel is demeaning, it's distracting, and it bears very little relevance to competence and character," he said.

Ohio is one of 21 states that elect their justices, either through partisan or nonpartisan contests. On the table yesterday were strictly proposals to switch to an appointment-retention system or public financing.

Ohio became a poster-child for high-roller judicial elections in 2000 when the U.S. and Ohio Chambers of Commerce used corporate cash to bankroll a massive, unprecedented campaign to oust then-Justice Resnick, of Ottawa Hills, from the high court.

That attempt to tip the scales away from what the chambers called an anti-business 4-3 majority was bitter but unsuccessful. But since that election, candidates backed by the two Chambers of Commerce have won every time.

In 1987, voters overwhelmingly rejected a judicial "merit selection" system through which judges are first appointed and then face voters who decide whether they should keep their jobs. The Ohio General Assembly has shown little interest in broaching the subject again.

But Chief Justice Moyer and many others in the room believe political winds may be shifting. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that campaign contributions can - and did in a West Virginia Supreme Court case - influence a judge's ruling.

Multiple polls have shown that a majority of the public believes campaign cash can tip the scales of justice.

"While the facts speak otherwise, the perception, nevertheless, persists," said Ohio State Bar Association President Barbara Howard. "That perception erodes the public trust and confidence in the judiciary."

But state Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland) argued there appears to be a disconnect in the same polls. "In Ohio, 83 percent said money influences judges … and 51 percent still want to elect judges," he said. "While I understand there's a perception that money influences judges, it doesn't seem to be enough to say [judges] are not fair and impartial, and we should throw all the bums out and start a merit selection program."

Participants heard yesterday of the experiences of North Carolina, which has switched to a public funding system to counter the influences of outside groups, and Arizona and Indiana, which have commissions to interview and recommend judicial appointees to the governor for many courts in their states.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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