COLUMBUS — A hearing panel Monday found that Ohio Supreme Court candidate and former appellate judge William M. O’Neill violated the Judicial Code of Conduct by knowingly misrepresenting himself as a sitting jurist in campaign materials.
The three-judge panel recommended no discipline other than for a soon-to-be-appointed special commission to order Mr. O’Neill to cease distribution of the materials. The candidate said he will comply even though he disagrees with the decision.
“Once again I find myself in a position where I don’t believe how we elect judges in Ohio makes any sense,’’ he said. “In 2004, when I was the Democratic nominee for Supreme Court, I was prohibited from identifying myself as a Democrat.
“Now in 2012, I have a panel finding as a matter of law that I am a judge, but I am prohibited from using the word ‘judge’ in campaign literature,’’ he said. He said he has spent more on attorney fees than he has on his campaign.
Mr. O’Neill spent a decade on the Warren-based 11th District Court of Appeals before his retirement in 2007. He is seeking the Democratic nomination to do battle with Republican incumbent Justice Robert Cupp this fall.
But first he must get past Hamilton County Municipal Judge Fanon A. Rucker, the party’s officially endorsed candidate, in the March 6 Democratic primary election.
“The rule seemed clear to me, and it has since I started looking at it when I first thought about running four years ago,’’ Judge Rucker said.
The panel found that Mr. O’Neill’s campaign materials implied that he currently holds judicial office.
“The fact that he is known as judge because of his tenure on the 11th District Court of Appeals and that as a retired judge he is known as a judge, he nevertheless as a judicial candidate is prohibited from using the term ‘judge’ before his name in campaign materials since he does not currently hold that office…,’’ wrote Guernsey County Common Pleas Judge David A. Ellwood, who chaired the three-judge hearing panel.
Canton-based 5th District Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Farmer, who serves as chief justice of the Courts of Appeals, must within five days appoint a panel of five fellow appellate judges to consider the lower panel’s recommendations.
The hearing panel noted that a two-sided O’Neill campaign card refers to him nine times as “judge,’’ including the disclaimer of who paid for it, while describing him as “former court of appeals judge’’ once.
At last week’s hearing, Mr. O’Neill noted that then Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer had appointed him as a retired judge in 2009 to perform a marriage ceremony in Cuyahoga County, referring to him as “the Honorable William Michael O’Neill.’’ He was similarly titled on a 2011 retired judge seminar attendee list.
Mr. O’Neill said 20,000 of the campaign cards were printed and about half of them have been personally distributed. He said he will not distribute the rest and will ask via his campaign Web site for those holding the other cards to destroy them.
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