O’Neill spices up judge race


Ohioans should be thanking Bill O’Neill for running for Supreme Court.

I’m not saying you should vote for him, just offer some appreciation for his presence in what would otherwise be a staid campaign for the state’s high court.

Not to denigrate the three incumbents and their challengers or the importance of the Ohio Supreme Court, but judicial races can be real yawners, with candidates limited in what they can say.

It’s poor form, for example, to offer positions on particular issues that could come before the court. And you’re supposed to ignore political affiliation in November, since these are nonpartisan affairs (though voters had to pick a party and a candidate during the primary).

O’Neill isn’t your typical Supreme Court candidate, as was evidenced during a forum last week in Columbus.

School funding

While the others, particularly the two sitting justices, were careful about what they said and how they said it, O’Neill plunged right in on issues (the high court really blew it on school funding, he said), on the court’s disciplinary proceedings (he called them “frauds” and glorified “cocktail parties”) and campaign contributions to judicial candidates (“I’m the judge who refuses to take any money from anybody,” he said).

The latter was a point of debate between O’Neill and Justice Terrence O’Donnell, and the two aren’t even facing each other in November. O’Neill is challenging Justice Robert Cupp, while O’Donnell is up against Democratic state Sen. Mike Skindell.

But the two do have some history. O’Donnell topped O’Neill in the 2006 general election, 59-41 percent.

O’Neill has been hammering on the campaign contribution issue.

“I believe that it is fundamentally wrong for a judge to accept contributions from a lawyer or litigant and then rule on their case,” he said. “I think it undermines the integrity of the system. I think it tarnishes all who are involved in the process.”

He cites contributions made by a company to O’Donnell and Cupp between oral arguments on a case and a final favorable decision.

“I am not saying that is a crooked decision,” O’Neill added. “But 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.”

O’Donnell, not hiding his irritation, countered that, while justices are aware of the perception of influence of campaign contributions in judicial campaigns, there is no cause-and-effect relationship between contributions and case determinations.

“The fact is that judges are not permitted to accept contributions in Ohio,” O’Donnell said. “... We regulate that by having them develop a campaign committee for the purpose of raising funds. Those committees are charged with collecting the money, reporting the money for full transparency.”

O’Donnell also chastised O’Neill for not telling the whole story — that a grievance that he filed on the aforementioned contribution was tossed.

“He hasn’t had the integrity to tell you his complaint has been dismissed, and these charges are false,” O’Donnell said.

Again, I’m not endorsing O’Neill or O’Donnell or anyone else running for Supreme Court.

But O’Neill made last week’s candidate forum and this year’s justice contests a lot more interesting.

And for that, voters should be grateful.

Marc Kovac is The Vindicator’s Statehouse correspondent. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com.

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