COLUMBUS - An informal panel created by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moyer yesterday proposed lengthening judge's terms and raising their salaries in hopes of attracting quality candidates.
The report, titled “Judicial Impartiality: The Next Steps,” evolved from a conference called by the chief justice nearly a year ago. The state had come off contentious Supreme Court campaigns in 2000 and 2002 into which outside groups had poured millions of dollars.
“The long-term goal is to eliminate the perception that money contributions to judge's campaigns influence the decisions judges make,” Chief Justice Moyer said. “All surveys indicate that's the common belief.”
The chief justice said he supports most of the recommendations while he is still studying others. He is actively pursuing legislation that would increase judicial terms, qualifications, and training.
One of the chief focuses of the March, 2003, conference was the idea of shifting to a form of merit selection, a process by which judges are appointed rather than elected. Voters, however, have soundly rejected that idea in the past, and the follow-up panel determined not enough voters have changed their minds.
The diverse work groups consisted of lawyers, judges, citizens' groups, and academics. Most of the proposed changes would require legislative action. None would take effect before 2005.
They wouldn't affect this year's election for four seats on the court. The chief justice, a Columbus Republican, is seeking re-election.
Catherine Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action, who served on the group that proposed campaign finance reforms, questioned the proposal to link Ohio judges' salaries to federal judicial salaries. Each year the Ohio salaries would be automatically adjusted, based on the cost of living.
“The chief justice is already making more than the governor,” said Ms. Turcer. “We're in a budgetary crisis. Judges already make 96 percent more than the average Ohioan.”
The chief justice will earn $136,800 this year, compared to $130,300 for Gov. Bob Taft.
Judicial salaries are now set by the General Assembly.
Chief Justice Moyer said he believes current salary levels discourage more experienced, midcareer lawyers from running for judicial office. “We judges are ruling virtually every day in Ohio on a statute adopted by the legislature,” he said. “Just the process of going back to the legislature to request an increase in compensation is not the best process.”
The panel is seeking public comment over the next few weeks via e-mail at www.thenextsteps.org. Among the chief recommendations were:
w An increase in the length of terms of judges, currently six years across the board. The panel would increase the term for a Supreme Court justice to 12 years and for full-time county common pleas and municipal judges to 10. There is some question whether the state constitution would prohibit an increase in municipal bench terms.
w Increase the minimum qualifications for judicial office. Candidates must now have practiced law at least six years. The panel proposes 10 years for common pleas court, 12 for appellate courts, and 15 for the Supreme Court.
w Require those contributing to judicial candidates to disclose cases they've had on the court's docket within a year.
w Prohibit candidates from accepting county political party contributions not segregated from other candidate funds.