SUDDES: Bail reform amendment should draw questions from voters

Thomas Suddes

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Thomas Suddes

Ohioans will see two proposed state constitutional amendments on November’s ballot, one of which drew some Democratic legislators’ votes, while the other is a Republican turnout special, handy for GOP candidates talking law ‘n’ order in this year’s Supreme Court elections.

The first proposed amendment would forbid non-citizens to vote in Ohio local elections. As it is, aliens may not vote in federal or state elections. But a while back, voters in Yellow Springs, amended their village’s charter to let non-citizens vote on local issues and contests. Legal route to reach that result: The state constitution’s home-rule guarantees to cities and villages.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose nixed alien voting. Besides, the Legislative Service Commission reports, “It seems that no noncitizen has registered to vote in the village.”

Ah, but there’s no greater Statehouse pleasure than pounding a non-existent problem with a sledgehammer. Accordingly, the proposed constitutional amendment aims to nail the home rule door shut, though voting by aliens isn’t foreign to Ohio. For roughly the first half-century Ohio was a state, until1851, (male) aliens could vote, as aliens could in some other states as late as the 1920s, according to a William & Mary thesis by Alan Kennedy-Shaffer.

Five House Democrats and all Senate Democrats present joined Republicans in placing the alien-voter ban on November’s ballot so voters can solve one of Ohio’s lesser challenges, if challenge it be.

The other November ballot issue, submitted to voters along party lines – Republican legislators for, Democrats against – would, the LSC says, require courts, when setting bail for criminal defendants, to consider public safety among the pertinent factors.

There are three strands to the backstory. One, if voters OK it, the ballot issue would in effect chip away at the state Supreme Court’s rule-making power over how courts operate as to setting – or refusing – bail.

Then, too, another strand is a 4-3 decision the Supreme Court issued in January. That ruling agreed with a lower court that bail required of a Cincinnati defendant charged with homicide should be reduced from $1.5 million to $500,000.

The four Supreme Court members upholding the $500,000 amount were retiring Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, and Democratic Justices Melody Stewart, Jennifer Brunner and Michael Donnelly. The three justices opposing the bail reduction were Republicans Sharon Kennedy, Patrick Fischer and R. Patrick (Pat) DeWine, Gov. Mike DeWine’s son.

A third strand: Democratic Justice Brunner and Republican Justice Kennedy are running against each other to succeed Republican O’Connor as chief justice.

And seeking re-election are Pat DeWine (challenged by Democratic 1st District Court of Appeals Judge Marilyn Zayas of Cincinnati) and Republican Fischer (challenged by Democratic 10th District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison of Columbus).

Continued GOP control of the court, which is now 4-3 Republican, is a critical goal of the Statehouse’s GOP hierarchy, especially given that General Assembly districts must be redrawn for 2024′s election.

It might or might not be Hoyle for Kennedy to criticize Brunner over the bail case, or for DeWine and Fischer to criticize the other Democrats in the majority. Still, in his dissent, Justice DeWine described the bail ruling this way: “Make no mistake: what the majority does today will make Ohio communities less safe.”

If that doesn’t invite Ohio voters and bystanders to ask the three Ohio Supreme Court Republican candidates on November’s ballot about the bail amendment, and its law ‘n’ order angle, and who voted how, then nothing can. After all, discussing “the-administration-of-justice” – not the nuts-and-bolts of wooing voters – is so much more… judicial.

Thomas Suddes is a former legislative reporter with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and writes from Ohio University. You can reach him at tsuddes@gmail.com.

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