We elect all judges in Ohio. The Ohio Constitution requires this. Over the years, different judicial leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with electing judges. The late Chief Justice Tom Moyer long favored merit selection, at least for appellate judges and justices of the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Our current Chief Justice, Maureen O’Connor, has had an interesting pathway in this debate. Initially, O’Connor abandoned Moyer’s quest for merit selection, because she thought voters didn’t want it. At the annual meeting of the Ohio State Bar Association in May of 2013, O’Connor posed a series of eight questions she put out for discussion about judicial elections:
- Should Ohio change the law so judicial races are no longer listed at the end of the ballot?
- Should all judicial elections be held in odd-numbered years?
- Should Ohio centralize and expand its civic education programming and institute a judicial voter guide?
- Should Ohio eliminate party affiliation on the ballot in judicial primaries?
- Should Ohio join the other states that have a formal, non-partisan system for recommending nominees to the Governor to fill judicial vacancies?
- Should appointments to the Ohio Supreme Court require the advice and consent of the Ohio Senate?
- Should Ohio increase the basic qualifications for serving as a judge?
- Should Ohio increase the length of judges’ terms?
After a year of discussions around the state, at the next Ohio State Bar Association annual meeting on May 1, 2014, the Chief recommended action on four of the eight issues she had proposed the year before. Apparently, the rest didn’t have the necessary political support, at least for now. Here are the four:
- Elevating judicial elections by holding them all together in odd-numbered years and moving them to the top of the ballot. This would require both a constitutional amendment and some legislative changes.
- Educating voters about judicial elections and encouraging them to participate. Beginning in 2015, there is to be a permanent, ongoing education and information campaign including an online statewide judicial voter guide. The program will be housed at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Partners in the program will include the Ohio State Bar Association and the League of Women Voters of Ohio.
- Increasing the basic qualifications to serve as a judge. This would require a statutory change. Presently, the practice requirements for all judges is six years. Under this proposal, the requirements for judge would be eight years for common pleas court, ten years for appellate courts and twelve years for Ohio Supreme Court justices.
The least controversial of these proposals has now come to fruition. Yesterday, September 1, 2015, the Court announced the launch of the first statewide judicial voter education website – JudicialVotesCount.org, which will provide Ohioans with information about all of the 2015 Municipal Court judicial races, and about future judicial races in upcoming years. According to the Court’s announcement, “in addition to candidate profiles, the website features information about what judges do, descriptions about the duties of different courts, and brief videos of former judges explaining how the court system works.”
Organizations that played an active role in implementing this recommendation are the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, which houses the website; the Ohio State Bar Association; the League of Women Voters of Ohio; the Ohio Newspaper Association; and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters.
Read more about the launch of this voter education website here.
Clearly, the Chief is now trying to implement the most doable of the proposed reforms. But after the judicial elections in November of 2014, she signaled that she has had a change of heart about electing judges. Read more about that here. The Chief has come to favor a merit selection/retention system, in which the governor would initially appoint judges based on recommendations from a screening committee. Two years later, in a retention election in which a judge runs on his or her record rather than against an opponent, voters would decide whether or not to retain that judge. So, it seems that O’Connor has arrived at the same place about judicial election reform that Tom Moyer long favored.
In the meantime, smaller reforms like better voter education are to be applauded.