By David Skolnick
Voters have to look toward the bottom of the ballot — past candidates for president, Congress and county positions, even the unopposed ones — to find those running for three Ohio Supreme Court seats.
But there are three races.
One race pits Justice Terrence O’Donnell, who’s served since 2003, against state Sen. Mike Skindell for a six-year term beginning Jan. 1.
Justice Robert R. Cupp, elected to the court six years ago, is being challenged by William M. O’Neill, a former judge on the Warren-based 11th District Court of Appeals who is running for a Supreme Court seat for the third time. That six-year term starts Jan. 2.
Also, Justice Yvette McGee Brown, appointed in January 2011 by Ted Strickland during his final days as governor, faces Judge Sharon L. Kennedy of Butler County’s Domestic Relations Division, for an unexpired term that ends Dec. 31, 2014.
In Ohio, Supreme Court candidates run in politically partisan primaries and then are on the general- election ballot without a party affiliation.
Justices O’Donnell and Cupp and Judge Kennedy ran as Republicans in the primary.
Justice McGee Brown and O’Neill won Democratic primaries. Skindell was selected by the Ohio Democratic Party to replace Bob Price of Austintown, who quit after the primary.
The three sitting judges say politics isn’t a factor in any of their legal decisions. The court is controlled by Republicans 6-1.
Skindell has spent the past 10 years in the state Legislature and has practiced law for 25 years.
“They have a single philosophy,” he said of the justices. “When you have only one viewpoint, you don’t get justice. There’s influences, imbalance and unfairness in the court.”
Justice O’Donnell points to his experience not only on the Supreme Court but his 22 years as a common-pleas and court of appeals judge.
“I find that experience to be important,” he said. “My opponent doesn’t have any judicial experience.”
As for being objective, Justice O’Donnell said, the court “works really hard to instill public confidence in our decisions. We don’t do that based on politics. We do it based on what the law is. I need to be open- minded, but make up my own mind.”
O’Neill, who was elected twice to the 11th District Court of Appeals, again is campaigning on a platform that money and the judicial system doesn’t mix.
He says there is the “appearance of impropriety” with Justices Cupp and O’Donnell accepting campaigning contributions from FirstEnergy’s political action committee and executives while the court decides a case involving the company.
O’Neill wants them to return the money or recuse themselves.
“They’re all honest, but the appearance of impropriety is there,” he said.
Both justices say they have done nothing wrong or improper, and won’t recuse themselves.
They added that money doesn’t play any role when they decide a case, and they don’t keep track of who contributes to their campaigns.
“I know Justices Cupp and O’Donnell, and I don’t believe their votes can be bought,” said Justice McGee Brown. “I believe in their integrity.”
Justice Cupp said he and his fellow justices work well together, and aren’t influenced by money.
“The answer to that is clearly ‘no’ and that’s for Democrats and Republicans,” he said.
Justices Cupp and McGee Brown were the only candidates to be “highly recommended” by the Ohio State Bar Association.
Voters “put a lot of stock in that,” Justice Cupp said. “It’s the only statewide group with a diversity of members,” he said of the bar association.
Judge Kennedy was the only candidate to receive a “not recommended” rating, the first Supreme Court candidate in 14 years with that designation.
When asked about it, Judge Kennedy said it’s up to voters to decide “if I merit their vote.”
The judge has 27 years in the justice system, including 14 years as a judge. She started as a police officer.
She said that many people she speaks with “believe that activism occurs with this court.”
The three sitting judges disagree.
“I don’t believe we legislate from the bench,” Justice McGee Brown said. “When cases come to us, they’re not black and white. That’s why we are there. If the cases were black and white, there wouldn’t be a need for a Supreme Court.”
While she’s the lone Democrat on the court, Justice McGee Brown said she doesn’t “bring a political ideology to the job,” and neither do the other judges.
“Politics have not entered into deliberations once,” she said. The justices make “decisions on how they interpret the law.”