Controversial Ohio Justice O’Neill to step down from bench on Jan. 26 and run for governor

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill will resign from the court Jan. 26, according to a letter he sent Friday to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who accepted the resignation.

Kasich, a Republican, will pick a successor to O’Neill, who is the court’s only Democrat. No timetable has been set, but a spokesman for Kasich said a committee will screen candidates and then make recommendations to the governor.

The timing of O’Neill’s departure from the court continues to draw criticism because of his plans to run for governor, a partisan post, while holding down an officially non-partisan judicial office.

After O’Neill announced on Oct. 29 that he would run for governor — and remain on the bench until his formal filing — Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor sent an email to her fellow justices urging them to consider changing the rules of conduct for judges seeking partisan office.

O’Connor’s emails were obtained by this newspaper using Ohio’s public records laws.

In a Nov. 2 email to fellow justices, O’Connor said she disagreed with O’Neill’s decision to delay his resignation, which at the time he had said would be Feb. 2. O’Neill contends that he doesn’t have to leave the bench until he files his nominating petitions by the Feb. 7 deadline.

RELATED: Ohio Supreme Court Justice recuses himself after controversy

O’Connor said she told him she disagreed with his interpretation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which says, “Upon becoming a candidate in a primary or general election for a nonjudicial elective office, a judge shall resign from judicial office.”

O’Connor wrote in her email that “under no circumstances will Bill be able to say that the Supreme Court agrees, approves, or condones his course of action to remain on the court.

“Simply put we have no mechanism in place to remove a justice when one becomes a partisan candidate,” O’Connor wrote. “Going forward should we revisit some of our Rules of Judicial Conduct? I think that’s a definite yes.”

While justices cannot directly remove a fellow justice, there is a complaint process through the Ohio Court of Appeals Judges Association that can lead to suspension of a judge’s law license or even disbarment, which would remove the person from the bench.

When asked if the justices were moving ahead with O’Connor’s suggestion court spokesman Edward Miller said via email, “For today, the (chief justice’s) email will have to speak for itself. We don’t have any info on a timetable.”

RELATED: Supreme court justice not leaving race for Ohio governor

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, on Friday demanded that O’Neill step down immediately and said the state legislature should move to unseat him under a resolution Antani filed on Nov. 9.

“Once Justice O’Neill is removed from the Supreme Court by my resolution, the Ohio Supreme Court will finally be able to return to the high moral and ethical standard that Ohioans deserve,” Antani said.

In an earlier interview, David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Antani’s proposal threatened the independence of the judiciary.

RELATED: Local lawmaker says state supreme court justice violating conduct code

O’Neill had originally said he would withdraw from the race if former Ohio treasurer and attorney general Richard Cordray became a candidate. But he now says he will be a candidate. On his Facebook page he outlines an eight-point plan for legalizing marijuana, opening more mental institutions, raising the minimum wage, building high speed electric rail and controlling education costs.

“It is time for Democrats in Ohio to actually have an open primary driven by a vision that provides hope for the future,” O’Neill says on the post.

RELATED: Cordray launches run for governor

Cordray, who last month resigned as director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, announced Monday that he is in the race, joining a crowded field of Democrats that includes Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, former state representative Connie Pillich of Cincinnati, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, and former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton of Akron. O’Neill would be the sixth candidate, and the field may still grow larger.

RELATED: Richard Cordray brings governor campaign to Dayton

Larry Ealy of Trotwood, a former exotic dancer known as Luscious Larry, also has obtained petitions to seek the Democratic nomination but he has not submitted them. Ealy garnered 17 percent of the vote in the 2014 Democratic primary, losing to Ed FitzGerald, who went on to lose the General Election to Kasich.

RELATED: Former stripper launches second bid for Ohio governor

The 2018 Republican field got a little smaller when Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted agreed to run as a team. Husted had been campaigning for the top slot.

RELATED: DeWine-Husted ticket called governor’s race ‘dream team’ by GOP state senator

Also seeking the Republican nomination are U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.

Ohio law allows statewide office holders to run for another position while remaining in their jobs, but judges must follow different rules because they are officially non-partisan.

In response to critics who said he should resign immediately, O’Neill on Nov. 3 said he would recuse himself from “all future cases” but continue to handle existing cases.

O’Neill ignited further controversy and bipartisan calls for his resignation last month when he posted remarks on Facebook touting his sexual exploits with “50 very attractive females.” That cost him his campaign spokesman, Chris Clevenger, who called the comments “disturbing and misguided” and resigned. O’Neill subsequently apologized for the post.

RELATED: O’Neill’s boast of sexual liaisons brings calls for his resignation

On Friday Cordray called O’Neill a “loose cannon”

“Bill O’Neill is a loose cannon who callously disrespects women, embarassing our party and our state,” Cordray tweeted. “There’s no place for that in this race.”

Assuming Kasich appoints a Republican to the bench, O’Neill’s resignation will leave U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown as the only remaining Democrat holding statewide office in Ohio.

O’Neill, who took office in 2013 and is paid $156,150 annually, was the first Democrat elected to a seat on the high court since Alice Robie Resnick was elected in 1988. Resnick was the sole Democrat to hold statewide elected office in 2006 when she decided to not seek re-election after she was arrested and subsequently convicted for drunken driving in 2005.

Democrats Eric Brown and Yvette McGee Brown both served on the court between Resnick and O’Neill, but they were appointed to their seats. Both lost elections to retain their seats.

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