A look at Ohio’s judicial elections

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth

Woodrow Wilson once said that “the profession I chose was politics; the profession I entered was law. I entered the one because I thought it would lead to the other.” 

Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was the 28th President of the United States, serving from 1913 to 1921, so his strategy worked. This came to mind when I read the blog post of July 8, 2021 from Marianna Brown Bettman, a former appellate judge and a professor emeritus of law at the University of Cincinnati, on her website, legallyspeakingohio.com. This is what she reported.

            “Ohio has always had a strange hybrid for judicial elections. There is a partisan primary, followed by the general election, which is nonpartisan. In July, Governor DeWine signed Senate Bill 80 into law which makes the seats on the Supreme Court of Ohio and the intermediate court of appeals races partisan races, beginning in November 2022. That means voters will see an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to names of the candidates for these offices. The lower trial courts will remain on the nonpartisan ballot. Switching to partisan elections has been floated in the past but has been unsuccessful until now.”

            Senate Bill 80 was sponsored by Senator Gavarone (a Republican representing District 2) and Senator Cirino (a Republican representing District 18). Proponents assert that the legislation simply gives voters more information about the candidates they are considering and promotes voter participation.

            The new law is opposed by both the current chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio Judicial Conference. Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, argues that judges have to rule on the specifics of the cases in front of them and not the values of the Republican, Democrat or other political parties. She argues there are better ways to judge candidates, such as their records on the bench and their explanation of why they want to move onto a higher bench, such as the Ohio Supreme Court or an appellate court. Judges can explain complicated cases that they were careful about deciding and educate voters on the potential consequences if they would have been less thorough with the details.

            Chief Justice O’Connor described an incident that occurred in 2012 when she joined a dissenting opinion over legislative redistricting. The majority opinion largely favored Republicans and she got some criticism from members of her own party for not joining the majority. She advocates that party affiliation should not — and people have to understand it should not — have anything to do with how a judge does their job.

            The Ohio Judicial Conference was created by statute in 1963, for the purpose of studying the co-ordination of the work of the courts of Ohio, the encouragement of uniformity in the application of the law, rules, and practice throughout the state. The Judicial Conference represents the interest of Ohio’s 723 judges at all levels of the court system and opposed Senate Bill 80 because it believes that the integrity of any judicial system demands impartiality. Partisan elections can imply that judges are beholden to the interests of their party, and not to the law. Canon 4 of the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct provides that judges “shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.”

            In the 1980s, I worked for the Legislative Budget Board for the State of Texas. It was a different time. While legislators clearly identified as either Democrat or Republican, the real distinction was a representative or senator’s ability to think critically and work together. Republicans and Democrats joined in solving important issues. Today, there seems to be too much hate of the opposing party and lack of productive discourse. 

            The late Charles Krauthammer, a conservative political columnist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his columns in The Washington Post in 1987, observed that “to understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” A judge, at any level, regardless of how they are elected, needs to rise above that kind of thinking.   

Leisa Boley Hellwarth is a dairy farmer and an attorney. She represents farmers throughout Ohio from her office near Celina. Her office number is 419-586-1072. 

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