COLUMBUS — Candidates for two of the three seats on the Nov. 6 ballot for Ohio Supreme Court clashed Wednesday over the influence that campaign cash has on the administration of justice.
The two Democrats, on the outside looking in on the high court, agreed that contributions from parties involved in a case provide at least the appearance that justice can be for sale. The two Republican incumbents countered that judicial rules put some distance between themselves and fund-raising and bristled at the suggestion that their votes can be bought.
The rare public debate of Supreme Court candidates was sponsored by the Columbus chapter of the Federalist Society and the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law.
“In January of this year, FirstEnergy, through their subsidiary, Ohio Edison, had a case before the Supreme Court that they argued,” said former Warren-based appellate judge William O’Neill, a Democrat running against Republican Justice Robert Cupp of Lima.
“Two weeks later, their political action committee wrote a check for $6,300 to Justice Cupp, $6,300 to Justice [Terrence] O’Donnell, and four weeks later they ruled in their favor,” Mr. O’Neill said. “I’m not saying that is a crooked decision. I am saying it is impossible to avoid the appearance of impropriety when you accept money from a litigant and then rule on their case.”
He had filed a disciplinary grievance against Justice Cupp, but it was recently dismissed by the court’s disciplinary arm. Although the complaint was not filed against him, it was Justice O’Donnell who reacted most vociferously.
“We’re aware of the continuing perception that there may be an influence of campaign contributions in judicial campaigns,” Justice O’Donnell said. “I can tell you there is no cause-and-effect relationship existing, as Judge O’Neill would have you think, between a campaign contribution and a case result. There’s no evidence of that anywhere.”
He chastised Mr. O’Neill for issuing a news release announcing that he had filed the complaint against Justice Cupp but did not publicly disclose that it was later dismissed by a panel of three judges.
Mr. O’Neill countered that he was forbidden by judicial rules from talking about the complaint.
Justice Cupp noted that Ohio has opted to elect its judges, and that it’s up to those judges and candidates to educate the electorate about races that, in most election years, fly under the radar.
“So you run a campaign, and part of the campaign is providing information to voters so they can make that decision,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve not found any TV or radio outlets or newspapers in this state who are willing to run advertisements for candidates without charging them.”
He noted that rules place limits on the amounts of contributions that can be made and prohibit the judges from directly soliciting individuals for contributions or directly accepting their money.
“We have a system that, to a certain degree, is made for failure,” said state Sen. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood), Justice O’Donnell’s Democratic opponent. “We try to promote fair and impartial judicial races, but we have our candidates run in partisan primaries and then, when we get to the general election, there’s no “D” or “R” next to you. We put private fund-raising into these campaigns. There’s limited regulation.”
He said he supports public financing of judicial races similar to what is done in Arizona.
“I strongly believe that the state of Ohio should examine that model,” Mr. Skindell said.
The two candidates for the third and highest-profile race for the high court — appointed Democratic Justice Yvette McGee Brown and Republican Butler County Domestic Relations Judge Sharon Kennedy — did not participate in the debate.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.