By Maureen O’Connor
In 1976, the Toledo Blade, fed up with the “name game” in Ohio judicial campaigns, endorsed A. William Sweeney over incumbent William B. Brown for the Ohio Supreme Court for no reason other than the candidate’s last name.
“Well, voters must choose either the Brown or the Sweeney,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote. “We give a nod to the latter solely on the grounds that there already are two Browns sitting on the high court, whereas there are no Sweeneys. It is, we readily grant, a poor basis for picking a Supreme Court justice, but it’s no more stupid than the selection system which sets up such ridiculous predicaments.”
Selecting our judges is way too important to be left to the happenstance of ancestry and marriage. So, I have proposed eight ideas for strengthening judicial elections in Ohio. You can read the plan and offer your comments online at OhioCourts2013.org.
We are fortunate in Ohio to have an exceptional bench of talented and hard-working judges administering justice competently and impartially. But the public does not always see it that way. The public, based on what polling tells us, believes that judges are influenced by politics, donations, and other considerations. If we claim a candidate’s politics has no place in the courtroom, but then label candidates as either Republican or Democrat, we send a confusing message and undermine public confidence.
We can do better. Voters have made it clear time and again that they will never relinquish their right to vote for judges, so my plan starts with the assumption that we have judicial elections and asks, how can we make them better?
The name game is just one symptom of the overall problem with judicial elections in Ohio. Voters feel deprived of quality information about candidates and are therefore not fully engaged. Lacking quality information, voters either don’t participate (on average even among voters who show up at the polls, more than 25 percent do not cast a ballot in judicial contests) or they rely on superficial information like the candidate’s name.
In addition to last names, perhaps the second most powerful cue that voters often rely on is whether the candidate is a Democrat or a Republican. This is actually worse than last name because if there’s anything that should not matter on the bench it is party affiliation.
The current system places party affiliation on the ballot in the primary but not in the general election. It was instituted in 1911 as a political compromise and in response to the 19th Century abuses where political parties and their bosses totally dominated Ohio elections, including elections for judge.
Some have recently argued that we should go back to the 19th century and place party affiliation on the ballot for the general election.
Consider this: You’re standing before a judge who will decide your fate on a traffic violation, your divorce settlement, the custody of your children, or the estate of your parents. Do you care if the judge is a Democrat or a Republican? Do you want the judge to bring his or her political beliefs to these life-changing decision? Should the judge’s political affiliation have anything at all to do with judging?
So, my proposal includes a provision for eliminating party affiliation from the ballot entirely as is the case in 14 other states with competitive elections. It is part of a far-reaching plan that contains a number of suggestions for strengthening judicial elections in Ohio.
Among my other ideas: Should Ohio join the other states that have a formal, nonpartisan system for recommending nominees to the governor to fill judicial vacancies? Should appointments to the Ohio Supreme Court require the advice and consent of the Ohio Senate? Should Ohio increase the basic qualifications for serving as a judge? Should Ohio increase the length of judges’ terms?
I pose these ideas as questions because I do not profess to have all the answers. I am interested in leading a conversation and reaching a consensus on what we can do to strengthen judicial elections in Ohio. I hope you will join me in this important work by visiting www.OhioCourts2013.org today and sharing your thoughts.
Maureen O’Connor is the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.