Because information on judgeship candidates can be scarce, and because of Ohio’s ballot format, some Ohioans may ignore judgeship elections.
Insiders don’t: They gave more than $1.1 million to the 2014 campaign of Republican Justice Judith L. French when she won a full Ohio Supreme Court term. The Columbus Dispatch, citing data from judicial research groups, reported last month that the $1.1 million in donations French’s campaign got “ranked second in the nation among the 19 states that elected justices to their highest courts (in 2014).”
That is, Ohio ranked No. 7 in population among the states but ranked No. 2 in how much money was, in effect, bet on the election of a single judge of a state’s highest court.
French, a native of Mahoning County’s Sebring, now of the Columbus area, fended off her Democratic challenger, Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell, of Lakewood. She drew 56 percent of the vote to O’Donnell’s 44 percent. French had backing from business interests and their lawyers. O’Donnell had backing from unions and lawyers who represent injured Ohioans. O’Donnell’s seeking election next year to a Supreme Court seat now held by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, a Toledo Republican who’s retiring.
More data on the French-O’Donnell contest are in the study the Dispatch cited, “Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2013-2014.” Its authors are associated with the group Justice at Stake; the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law; and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Ohio is the only state to nominate judicial candidates in party primaries, as Democrats or Republicans, but then keep party labels off its November general election judicial ballot. That handicaps voters; a judge’s party affiliation can signal his or her philosophy. And in counties with lots of judges, notably Cuyahoga, Ohio’s clue-free judicial ballot can give judgeship candidates with popular last names an advantage over candidates who may be more qualified. Even so, Ohioans have twice refused to even partially adopt so-called “merit selection” plan for picking judges.
Net effect: Ohioans want to keep electing judges. But Ohioans may be flying blind when they do. That’s why a new website, JudicialVotesCount.org, spearheaded by Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican who was once Summit County prosecutor, will be a plus for Ohio voters. To create the website, O’Connor partnered with the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics; the Ohio State Bar Association; the League of Women Voters of Ohio; the Ohio Newspaper Association; and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters.
This year, with Municipal judges on the ballot, the website profiled candidates for those judgeships. Next year, JudicialVotesCount.org will profile candidates for the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and Common Pleas and County courts.
If there’s a fly in the ointment, while the website “will list candidates’ political affiliation … prior to a primary … (it) will not list political affiliation prior to a general election.” Reason: JudicialVotesCount.org aims to display what a voter would actually see on his or her ballot, and general election ballots for judgeships don’t list candidates’ party affiliations.
In theory, deleting party labels from listings of judgeship candidates after a party has nominated them sounds reasonable; that is how Ohio formats the official ballot. But if a judge’s party is meaningless, Barack Obama would put Republicans on the Supreme Court, and George W. Bush would have appointed Democrats.
Still, JudicialVotesCount.org will help Ohioans see what’s what with judgeship candidates — something high rollers know from the get-go.