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Published: 7/19/2005

5 justices urged to skip Taft records case; Democrats cite campaign funds from governor

BY STEVE EDER AND JAMES DREW
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

COLUMBUS Ohio House Democrats are calling on the state s Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer to bar himself and four other justices from deciding on a public-records lawsuit against Gov. Bob Taft, who has contributed about $27,000 to their campaigns since 2002.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Marc Dann, a Democrat from suburban Youngstown, sued the governor s office for documents that could shed light on the investment scandal at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation. Mr. Taft refused to release some information, including weekly cabinet reports, citing executive privilege.

All seven members of the state s highest court, through their spokesman, have maintained that they will not recuse themselves from hearing Mr. Dann s case against the governor.

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) wrote in a letter yesterday to Chief Justice Moyer:

It would seem that the public s respect for the judicial system could be threatened if judges who received campaign contributions from Governor Taft play a role deciding court cases concerning him.

Mr. Taft, his wife, and his gubernatorial campaign committee since 2002 have given $9,900 to Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton; $9,900 to Justice Maureen O Connor; $2,500 to Chief Justice Moyer; $2,500 to Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, and $2,500 to Justice Terrence O Donnell, Ohio campaign finance records show.

The same five justices recused themselves from hearing public records lawsuits filed by The Blade in May. They had received more than $23,000 in contributions from Toledo-area coin dealer Tom Noe.

The court, with five appointed justices, ruled in favor of The Blade last week, ordering the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation to disclose transaction records from Mr. Noe s $50 million, state-funded rare-coin venture.

Mr. Redfern wrote yesterday that the justices efforts to re-move themselves from Mr. Noe s case set a precedent to ensure the appearance of fairness and impartiality throughout this process.

Justice Moyer also ruled last week that none of the 34 judges in Cuyahoga County could preside over a case against Mr. Taft because of the appearance of partisanship and bias, Mr. Redfern noted in his letter.

Chris Davey, a spokesman for the court, said the judges will not recuse themselves in light of Mr. Redfern s letter.

All seven will be sitting on this case, Mr. Davey said. They decided that some time ago. Rep. Redfern s letter does not change that.

Mr. Davey said the governor and Mr. Dann have not asked the judges to excuse themselves from the case.

Mr. Dann said yesterday that it s up to each justice to decide for himself or herself.

Who am I to tell the Supreme Court about legal ethics? he asked.

Attorneys for the governor yesterday responded in writing to Senator Dann s request to depose Mr. Taft in his open-records case, saying that the court s job is not to referee political confrontations. Mr. Taft s legal counsel has said Kate Bartter, his chief policy adviser and director of cabinet affairs, should be allowed to replace the governor at the deposition.

The governor s response to Mr. Dann argues that Ms. Bartter is the custodian of the weekly reports at issue in this case and has personal knowledge as to the nature and handling of the weekly reports.

Unless [Mr. Dann] has ulterior undisclosed reasons for seeking discovery in this case, he should accept the opportunity to depose Ms. Bartter and permit the court to decide the legal question before it promptly, wrote Kathleen Trafford, a special counsel to the attorney general representing Mr. Taft s office in the case.

Mr. Dann responded yesterday, accusing Mr. Taft of trying to thwart the legal process by refusing to testify on his use of executive privilege.

Allowing the governor to avoid his duty to assist this court in evaluating the privileges he demands, places [him] above the law and is in conflict with the notions of open government and government accountability which are the underpinnings of the Ohio Public Records Act and our Constitutional Democracy, Mr. Dann wrote in a court filing yesterday. It sends a terrible message to the citizens of Ohio at a time when apparent government corruption is increasing public cynicism about their elected officials.

Contact Steve Eder at:seder@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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