Chief Justice O’Connor Proposes Public Dialogue on Judicial Election Reforms

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has announced an eight point plan for strengthening judicial elections. She did this in a speech May 9, 2013 at the annual meeting of the Ohio State Bar Association in Cleveland. She said she was motivated to develop this plan because this year marks the 45th anniversary of the Modern Courts Amendment, the last major reform of Ohio Courts.

This is the list of issues, posed as questions by the Chief, to be considered in a series of public discussion and meetings, hopefully culminating in an action plan by year’s end.

1. Should Ohio Change the Law So Judicial Races Are No Longer Listed at the End of the      Ballot?

2. Should All  Judicial Elections Be Held in Odd-Numbered Years?

3.  Should Ohio Centralize & Expand Its Civic Education Programming and Institute a      Judicial Voter Guide?

4. Should Ohio  Eliminate Party Affiliation on the Ballot in Judicial Primaries?

5. Should Ohio Join the Other States that Have a Formal, Non-Partisan System for      Recommending Nominees to the Governor to Fill Judicial Vacancies?

6. Should  Appointments to the Ohio Supreme Court Require the Advice and Consent of      the Ohio Senate?

7. Should Ohio  Increase the Basic Qualifications for Serving as a Judge?

8. Should Ohio Increase the Length of Judges’ Terms?

What is most interesting is what is not on the table, and that is any further discussion about switching away from contested elections to the merit selection system.  This was a pet project of the late Chief Justice Tom Moyer, but it repeatedly failed to get traction with the voters. Before the Chief died, some of the state’s major newspapers seemed to be warming to the idea, especially at the appellate level.  But O’Connor is abandoning the quest, citing a poll that found that 80% of Ohioans were opposed to the merit-selection plan. I doubt that 80% of Ohioans know what it is.

I think there are some very good ideas on the list, such as moving the judicial races higher on the ballot (by current statute, all non-partisan races must follow all partisan races), more informational voter guides, and longer terms. Changing the judicial races to off-years, which would mean they wouldn’t coincide with presidential elections, among other things, could be interesting, but Wisconsin tried that and has become a poster child for judicial chaos.  I especially applaud the use of non-partisan commissions to recommend candidates for judicial vacancies.  Former Governor Strickland used  a version of this (I chaired one such committee, and was very impressed by the process); Governor Kasich has  not. Instinctively, I dislike advise and consent from the state senate on filling vacancies to the high court.  Still, all of this is worth a serious conversation.  Read more about this on www.OhioCourts2013.org, a website devoted to strengthening judicial elections in Ohio.

The Ohio League of Women Voters, a strong supporter of reform efforts in this area, immediately sent out a press release  congratulating the Chief for launching a public dialogue on judicial reform.

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