The leader of the Ohio House said Friday that Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor might need to bow out of school-funding litigation after recent public statements that the state formula remains unconstitutional.
Republican House Speaker William Batchelder, of Medina, raised the issue with reporters during a joint news conference with Gov. John Kasich and Senate President Keith Faber on the state budget.
“I do not know if the chief justice will be allowed to sit on this case, since when I was an appellate judge, if I made advance comments on any case before me, I had to take myself off that consideration in that court,” he said.
O’Connor told editors of the Columbus Dispatch for a story published June 4 that she didn’t think the status of Ohio’s funding formula had changed since the court last ruled it unconstitutional in 2002.
Beginning in 1997, the court issued four decisions in the case, holding that the state’s funding formula was overly reliant on property taxes that generate unequal revenue between rich and poor districts.
“I don’t think it’s changed,” O’Connor said of legislators’ response to the DeRolph decision. “I’m waiting like everyone else to see what the Legislature and the governor [are] going to do with it.”
O’Connor said in a statement Friday that what she said has been misunderstood.
“I was not commenting on a pending case because there is no pending case,” she said. “I was not indicating how I would rule if there were a case.” She said if a new case should come before the court dealing with Ohio’s school-funding formula, she would participate.
“I have made no statements that would require me to recuse myself,” she said.
Batchelder, a former judge, said Friday that his reading of the 2002 DeRolph decision was different: “In the end, the Supreme Court said that what was being done was adequate. Read the opinion; see what they said.” O’Connor didn’t join the court until after the final DeRolph decision.
William Phillis, whose Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding brought the suit, said the court was clear that constitutional questions had not been resolved and said the judges wrote that the system needed to be overhauled.
“The speaker must be thinking of some other case,” Phillis said.
All activity in the case ended in 2003, so O’Connor has no current suit to recuse herself from, Phillis said.
“So it seems to me the chief justice of the Supreme Court can talk about Medicare or can talk about school funding. There’s no case pending,” he said. “I don’t understand the Speaker’s statement whatsoever.”
On Thursday, the Legislature passed a two-year state budget bill that makes revisions to how state aid to schools is calculated — and increases the amount districts will get per pupil.
Faber has said he believes changes outlined in the budget have made the system constitutional. Phillis said spending more doesn’t address the underlying equity issues.
“The funding level [in the budget bill] is merely a figure pulled out of the air,” he said. “It has nothing to do with funding the components of a quality education. It has nothing to do with this court directive for a complete system overhaul of the system.”
Yet, he said in the current political environment, with one party controlling all branches of Ohio government, “I don’t know of anybody that’s going to be filing any school-funding litigation.”