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Moyer favors appointment of top justices

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COLUMBUS - Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer a "liberal"? "Polyannaish"?

In a rare debate yesterday over a legislative issue between a sitting chief justice and a lawmaker, Chief Justice Moyer called for a constitutional amendment to replace Ohio's system of electing justices with an appointment system.

But state Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) characterized the idea as a Polyannish plan pushed by liberals who have repeatedly failed in recent years under the current system.

"We desperately need to change the system," said the Republican chief justice before the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.

"I've been through it four times and, believe me, we need to change the way we choose the top judges," Mr. Moyer said.

He pointed to escalating pressure for justices to raise money for campaigns and increasing calls from a suspicious public for justices to recuse themselves from cases in which a campaign contributor is a party.

In 1987, voters overwhelmingly rejected a "merit selection" system for judges.

The chief justice is proposing a narrower, quasi-appointment process focusing only on the Supreme Court. A diverse nominating commission of at least eight members would, through majority vote, submit three names to the governor. He could select one or send the nominating panel back to the drawing board. Upon receipt of an entirely new list, the governor would have to appoint someone from the now six names before him.

Voters would have the opportunity within two years to give the appointed justice their thumbs up or down in a retention election in which the justice would be unopposed.

The chief justice seeks a lawmaker to sponsor a resolution to put the issue on the ballot.

"The plan is fundamentally anti-democratic and uses a meat axe to rectify problems that would be better dealt with in ways short of robbing the public of its rights," said Mr. Seitz.

He is sponsor of another bill supported by the chief justice to lengthen judicial terms and increase experience and training requirements for judicial candidates. Mr. Moyer testified before a House committee in favor of the bill on Wednesday.

He's also in search of a lawmaker to introduce a bill that would abolish another of his peeves with the judicial system: local mayors' courts.

Mr. Moyer successfully lobbied lawmakers in 2004 to force disclosure of those financing independent ads like those that have targeted Supreme Court races over the last few years.

"I've been in office long enough now to have sort of seen it all and have formed some pretty strong opinions about the changes we need to make," he said.

Currently the longest-serving chief justice in the nation, Chief Justice Moyer has long been critical of judges who use the bench to make public policy rather than strictly interpret laws passed by others. Now he's actively participating in the legislative process.

"If people think I'm becoming a judicial activist on improving the administration of courts, fine," he said. "I am very active in it, no question."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.

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