SUDDES: Ohio Supreme Court seats pivotal in 2022

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

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Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

The most important election contests in Ohio this year aren’t necessarily for the governorship or Rob Portman’s Senate seat. Instead, Campaign ‘22′s key battle arguably will be for three Ohio Supreme Court seats, given an out-of-control legislature and a Public Utilities Commission of Ohio drowning in fine print.

If anyone wonders why the court is pivotal, she or he need look no further than the Supreme Court’s pair of 4-3 rulings killing brazen gerrymanders – by the legislature’s GOP leaders – of new congressional and General Assembly districts.

In each instance, the Supreme Court’s three Democrats joined with Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor to junk districts that Senate President Matt Huffman and House Speaker Robert R. Cupp, both Lima Republicans, drew to favor their fellow Republicans.

O’Connor must leave the Supreme Court in December because of Ohio’s age limits for judges. Competing to succeed O’Connor as chief justice are Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner, once Ohio’s secretary of state, and Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy, of Butler County.

Democratic Justice Brunner joined with Republican Chief Justice O’Connor and Democratic Justices Michael Donnelly and Melody Stewart in killing the Hffman-Cupp gerrymanders. Voting to uphold the gerrymanders were Republican Justices Kennedy, Patrick Fischer and R. Patrick (Pat) DeWine – Gov. Mike DeWine’s son.

Had the gerrymanders been allowed to stand, Republicans might easily have captured 13 of the 15 U.S. House seats allotted to Ohio beginning with this year’s election. As for the legislature, the gerrymander likely would have guaranteed Republicans 60-odd seats in Ohio’s House compared to the roughly 54 seats the Supreme Court said fair districts would produce.

As noted, Republican Justice Kennedy is competing with Democratic Justice Brunner to become chief justice. (Come what may in November, Kennedy and Brunner will remain on the Supreme Court because their terms as associate justices run through 2026.)

But also on this year’s ballot are Justices DeWine and Fischer, who must win re-election to remain on the court for another six years. Justice DeWine’s Democratic challenger is Judge Marilyn Zayas, of the Cincinnati-based Ohio Court of Appeals (1st District), which encompasses Hamilton County. Justice Fischer’s Democratic challenger is Judge Terri Jamison, of the Columbus-based Ohio Court of Appeals (10th District), which encompasses Franklin County.

This year, there’ a new twist to Ohio judicial ballot. For the first time in roughly 100 years, Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates will run with party labels, thanks to Republican-backed Senate Bill 80, which Gov. DeWine signed July 1.

In 2020, Democratic then-challenger Brunner unseated Republican then-Justice Judith French, pruning what had been a 5-2 GOP Supreme Court majority to 4-3. A win by Jamison or Zayas could give the Supreme Court a 4-3 Democratic majority, something highly unwelcome to the Statehouse’s insurance and utility lobbies. And before anyone claims that a judge’s political party should make no difference in his or her thinking, why didn’t Barack Obama appoint Republicans to the Supreme Court? Why didn’t Donald Trump appoint Democrats?

It’s long past time for the Ohio Supreme Court to end its get-along, go-along approach given the General Assembly’s antics, which show no signs of ending. The legislature has buffaloed its fellow Republican, Mike DeWine. And while House Speaker Cupp is a lame duck – term-limits will retire him in December – Senate President Huffman isn’t going anywhere. Meanwhile, the legislature has trampled municipal home rule, made Ohio a gun peddler’s paradise, and second-guessed medical experts fighting COVID-19.

Somewhere at the Statehouse are people who need to be the adults in the room – a role the Supreme Court just played, and needs to keep playing, to rein in an addled legislature.

Thomas Suddes is an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio University.

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