Three Democrats and three Re- publicans are vying for three seats on the Ohio Supreme Court — not that you’d know that by looking at your ballot Nov. 6.
Even though these candidates appeared on partisan primary election ballots March 6, in the general election there is no D or R beside their names. Such partisan anonymity is largely a pretense. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that in recent years the court has been heavily tilted toward Republicans. Up until April 2010, all seven members of the court were Republican. The death of Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer eventually led to Gov. Ted Strickland appointing the court’s lone Democrat, Yvette McGee Brown.
It was a dramatic appointment for a couple of reasons. McGee Brown is the first African American woman to serve on the court, which last had a black male member in 1973. McGee Brown’s appointment also gave women a 4-3 advantage on the court, which has happened only twice before, the last time in 2005.
McGee Brown, 52, of Columbus, a former Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, is running for the final two years of the term to which she was appointed. She is being challenged by Sharon L. Kennedy, 50, a domestic relations court judge on the Butler County Court of Common Pleas.
There are two races for six-year terms.
Incumbent Terrence O’Donnell, 66, of Rocky River, a former Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge and court of appeals jurist, is seeking his third term. He is being challenged by Mike Skindell, 50, of Lakewood, a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Ohio Senate.
Robert A. Cupp, 61, of Lima, who has been a county commissioner, a state senator and appeals court judge, was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2006 and is seeking his second term. He is being challenged by William M. O’Neill, 65, of South Russell, who formerly sat on the 11th District Court of Appeals for two terms and is a registered nurse, as well as a lawyer.
All of the candidates were interviewed by The Vindicator editorial board, during which most stressed the nonpartisan nature of the job. But for the record, McGee Brown, Skindell and O’Neill ran in the Democratic primaries; Kennedy, O’Donnell and Cupp in the Republican primaries.
In response to a question, Kennedy said the court was an activist court in 1980s and ’90s, but is no longer. She could not think of a case in recent years in which the Ohio Supreme Court took an activist role, not even Dann vs. Taft. That is a 2006 open records case in which the Moyer Court established an executive privilege for Ohio’s governor by citing federal court rulings that applied to President Richard Nixon. Candidates for judicial office must be somewhat guarded in what they say, but a minimum level of candor is not too much to expect.
In our conversation with McGee Brown about the degree to which the court could be seen as partisan, the only Democrat on the court defended her colleagues, saying neither labor nor business is 100 percent pleased with the court. She made an interesting observation: The court is following the law. If it appears to be tilted toward Republicans, it is because the law in recent years has been written by a General Assembly controlled by the GOP.
The rest of the interview showed McGee Brown to be just as thoughtful and articulate on a number of issues. We endorse her election.
O’Neill, whom we have endorsed in the past in his appellate court races has been a thorn in the side of the state’s judiciary, questioning the appearance of impropriety that accompanies judicial candidates who accept campaign contributions. For his part, O’Neill says he takes “no money from nobody.”
His interviews are always stimulating and high energy, but in this case we did not find that he made an adequate case for replacing the incumbent, Cupp.
Cupp’s depth of experience, as a justice and as an office holder in the administrative and legislative branches of government, speaks strongly in his favor. He noted that he was one of three justices who recently dissented in a case involving adoption rights because he thought the court was not showing judicial restraint. He also noted that the court has demonstrated its political independence recently in cases that involved partisan political issues. We endorse his re-election.
In the third race, while we have disagreed with O’Donnell on a number of cases, his judicial experience at three levels of Ohio courts is an overwhelming factor.
Skindell has an admirable record in the Ohio Senate, supporting home rule, consumer law and challenging the John Kasich administration on a lack of transparency in establishing Jobs Ohio. But he lacks the judicial experience that would better prepare him for the supreme court.
In the three court races, The Vindicator endorses O’Donnell, Cupp and McGee Brown.