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Senate summons justice before lawmakers

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Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O'Neill.

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COLUMBUS — In a move unprecedented in modern history, the Ohio Senate voted Wednesday to summon a sitting state Supreme Court justice to appear before lawmakers to show cause why he shouldn’t be removed from office.

Justice William O’Neill, the court’s sole Democrat, has announced his candidacy for governor, set forth a policy platform, and picked a running mate. But he has remained on the bench, maintaining he won’t be an official candidate until he files petitions by the Feb. 7 deadline.

A single Democrat senator joined majority Republicans in a 25-8 vote putting Justice O’Neill on notice to appear. But the point may be moot.

House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (R., Clarksville) on Wednesday expressed little interest in immediately taking up the resolution. And Justice O’Neill has already submitted his resignation to Gov. John Kasich effective Jan. 26.

The resolution was introduced by Senate President Larry Obhof (R., Medina) and state Sen. Bob Peterson (R., Sabina). It seeks to force the issue on the grounds that judicial rules prohibit a judge from sitting on the bench while running for partisan non-judicial office.

“Ten people died of heroin overdoses today, and the Ohio Senate has chosen to waste everyone’s time passing a meaningless resolution, which they know is dead on arrival in the House,” Justice O’Neill said. “I watched them debating, and it was amusing.

“No one addressed the fact that I’ve resigned effective Jan. 26 in writing, and Governor Kasich has accepted that resignation in writing,” he said. “He’s recruiting candidates for my replacement.”

Although the resolution doesn’t mention it, Justice O’Neill’s now-deleted Facebook post in which he came to the defense of then-U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D., Minnesota) while the latter faced sexual-harassment accusations, also came up during debate. The justice provided details of his own sexual past in the process, drawing ire from fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

Among them was state Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D., Boardman), who cast the one Democratic vote for  the resolution.

Among the northwest Ohio delegation, state Sens. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), Robert McColley (R., Napoleon), Matt Huffman (R., Lima), and David Burke (R., Marysville) all supported the resolution, while Edna Brown (D., Toledo) did not.

“I find myself in a position where I have no choice but to call this gentleman in front of us and beg the question, ‘What are you thinking?’” said Mr. Burke, whose district stretches north to Sandusky Bay.

“That is what we are voting on,” he said. “This is not about innocence or guilt, but going to the root cause of the accusation, and the Ohio Constitution begs us directly to ask that question in this situation.”

Ms. Brown questioned the urgency.

“If Justice O’Neill is to resign in, say, eight days, then there would be no need for this resolution,” she said. “Why are we, as some would say, dipping in someone else’s business? We have been told that Justice O’Neill is violating a rule of the Supreme Court. That is their rule and, I believe, they should enforce their own rules.”

Mr. Gardner challenged suggestions the resolution is about politics.

“I find that argument is probably the weakest of all on the other side,” he said. “I know a lot of Republicans would like Bill O’Neill to be the Democratic nominee for governor.”

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

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