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Justice running for governor removes himself from future cases

O'Neill plans to remain on the court for now

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COLUMBUS — Balancing sitting on the highest bench of Ohio’s judiciary with a run for governor, state Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill on Friday decided he will not sit on any new cases that come before the court.

The sole Democrat holding statewide office issued a blanket notice recusing himself from any cases not already on his desk. His role in those cases will be filled by temporarily appointed judges from the state’s district courts of appeals.

He said in an interview that it would not be proper for him to participate in deciding which cases the Supreme Court will hear when he won’t be personally sitting on them.

“The process at Supreme Court is, when something is filed, unless it’s an emergency, it does not arrive on the justice’s desk for three to six months,” Mr. O’Neill said Friday. “Anything not currently on my desk, I will be recusing myself from.”

But Justice O’Neill will remain a justice and continue to participate in the estimated 99 cases already submitted to the court but not yet released, he said.

Although he announced his candidacy for governor on Sunday and plans to campaign, he has taken the position that he will not officially become a candidate until he files his petitions. He plans to do that on the filing deadline of Feb. 7.

He would step down with nearly a year left in his one six-year term, and Gov. John Kasich would likely replace him with a Republican. The Code of Judicial Conduct requires a member of the judiciary to step down when he becomes a candidate for a nonjudicial office, but it does not define at what point someone becomes a candidate.

In his recusal letter, Justice O’Neill left open the possibility he may not file candidate petitions at all, and in the end complete the final year of his term and fully participate in cases. He has long made it known he would not run if Richard Cordray does.

Mr. Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general and treasurer, remains a wild card in this race. He heads the top federal top consumer watchdog agency, a post to which he was appointed by President Obama, and would have to surrender his post to enter the campaign.

On the day Justice O’Neill he announced, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, issued a statement noting there is no mechanism to force Justice O’Neill’s recusal. But she encouraged him to “consider his future course of conduct in light of his oath of judicial office and the ethical obligations imposed upon all judges of this state.”

Justice O’Neill is seeking his party’s nomination next spring to replace Mr. Kasich. He has joined four already announced candidates — former Akron area U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, former Cincinnati state Rep. Connie Pillich, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D., Boardman), and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

The other candidates have largely presented a unified front and have done little to set themselves apart from one another in the three debates held so far. That might change when Justice O’Neill takes to the fifth podium to push for such things as legalizing marijuana.

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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