By Marc Kovac
Should the terms of judges be lengthened, their elections pushed into lower-turnout, odd-numbered years and their primary races be void of political-party labels?
Those are among the questions Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor posed to an audience of attorneys in Cleveland on Thursday as part of what’s being called an “eight-point plan for public consideration.”
“It is time for Ohio to address the issue of judicial selection,” she said, adding: “Polls show that the public views judges as susceptible to political influence. Voter participation in judicial elections on average is 25 percent less than participation in races for the executive and legislative branches. And there is evidence that we can do more to educate and inform the electorate.”
O’Connor offered the proposal during a speech at the Ohio Bar Association’s annual meeting.
The chief justice is not advocating eliminating judicial elections, saying voters have said “time and again” that they support competitive bench elections.
Instead, she said the state should begin a discussion on eliminating partisan primaries, with candidates running without partisan affiliation as they do during general elections.
“Should Ohio remain the only state in the union that holds partisan primaries followed by nonpartisan general elections for judges?” O’Connor asked. “Party affiliation has no place in judicial elections, period.”
The comment drew applause from the attorneys in the audience.
O’Connor also questioned whether judicial terms should be increased from six years to 8-10 years for county and municipal judge and 12 for Supreme Court justices.
And she suggested changing requirements for serving as a judge, increase the current six years in practice that is required to 10-15 years, depending on the court.
Among other ideas, O’Connor also outlined the potential of randomizing the order of races to allow judicial contests to appear further up the ballot and having judicial elections in odd-numbered years to gain more attention from voters.
And she questioned whether a nonpartisan panel should be created to recommend qualified candidates for bench vacancies and whether the resulting gubernatorial appointments should be subject to the consent of the Ohio Senate.
O’Connor was careful to submit her plan in question form rather than urging passage of the ideas as offered. She also announced a new website (www.ohiocourts2013.org) where the plan can be read and comments from the public offered.
“I don’t claim to have all the answers,” she said. “I submit it for public consideration and have established a process for bringing people together to reach consensus on the issue of judicial reforms.”