Friday, November 10, 2000

Chief justice: Appoint judges

Moyer distressed by negative ads

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Ohio's chief justice says the only way to remove a stain on the high court's integrity, caused by a blitz of negative campaign ads, is to appoint judges instead of electing them.

        Though Ohio voters rejected a similar idea in 1987, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer said Wednesday they should reconsider it, perhaps in the 2001 election.

Alice Robie Resnick
Alice Robie Resnick
Thomas J. Moyer
Thomas J. Moyer
        “It is right for all Ohio citizens,” he said in a speech before the 2000 Bench-Bar Conference. “At a very basic level, they understand that judges stand apart from common politics, from aggressive fund raising, from attack ads.”

        Justice Moyer said the current system in Ohio of electing appeals court judges and justices of the supreme court has produced “big money and attack ads. It is time to turn the page. Ohio's citizens who live by the decisions of the judiciary deserve better.”

        He urged the bar associa tion and legislative leaders to support a constitutional amendment to develop an appointive system that is now used in 30 states.

        In those states, judges are appointed by a special panel and voters are asked periodi cally whether to keep them on the bench.

        Leaders of two interest groups responsible for many of the ads run in this year's Supreme Court campaigns split when asked whether Justice Moyer's idea would remove politics from courtrooms.

        Bill Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said he fears Republican party leaders would control who gets appointed. And he said special interest ads in judicial elections can be a good thing.

        “It's the type of ad you run,” Mr. Burga said.

        Andrew Doehrel, president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said he could support appointing judges if it meant party leaders and interest groups had no control over the process.

        “The problem is, we have a politicized court,” Mr. Doehrel said. “As long as we have a politicized court, we are going to be there.”

        Chief Justice Moyer's comments come in the wake of an unprecedented campaign in which special interest groups spent millions to determine the balance of power on the Supreme Court.

        Justice Alice Robie Resnick won that contest. The Toledo Democrat collected 57 percent of the vote in her election battle with Republican Cuyahoga County appellate court Judge Terrence O'Donnell.

        Her victory was a stinging defeat to the Ohio Chamber and other business interests that spent between $4 million and $8 million on commercials questioning her integrity.

        Citizens for a Strong Ohio, a non-profit corporation formed by the Ohio Chamber, produced several televised spots. One claimed Justice Resnick often rules in favor of trial lawyers and labor leaders who contributed thousands to her campaign.

        The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also aired an ad that made the same claims.

        Ohio unions, trial lawyers and teachers groups ran ads defending Justice Resnick and attacking Judge O'Donnell. One said the judge had once ruled in favor of the employer in the case of a factory worker dismembered and killed by an unsafe machine.

        Justice Moyer said all of these ads “mischaracterized” the candidates.

        “They made them out to be bad people because they decided a case a certain way,” he said.

        “That's very dangerous because what it does eventually is it can erode a judge's independence,” Justice Moyer added. “We hope judges wouldn't do this, but they could begin to think politically instead of legally.”

        At stake in these races is a 4-3 high court majority that has angered Republicans and business interests with decisions that cast out worker compensation reforms and a law limiting lawsuit awards. Justice Moyer usually falls in the minority side of these cases.

        The next opportunity to shift that majority will come in 2002, when two new candidates run for an open seat on the court. Justice Andrew Douglas is expected to retire, obeying an ethics rule that says Ohioans older than 70 can't have the job.

        That could change if judges are appointed instead of elected. But lawmakers, party leaders, and many political interest groups in Ohio have resisted this idea, saying they prefer elections.

        Whether the candidates will have to cope with the same kinds of ads Justice Resnick and Judge O'Donnell faced is the big unanswered question. Justice Moyer said business interests clearly hurt themselves with their attacks.

        “I think the ads definitely had a negative impact on the candidate they were supposed to help,” he said.

        Though its ads did not help Judge O'Donnell, the U.S. Chamber claimed victories in 10 of 12 supreme court races it targeted with ads in Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi.

        Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said future judicial campaigns won't be free of negative ads.

        “Anybody who thinks attack ads don't work are kidding themselves,” Mr. Finan said. “They are the only way to turn a ship around.”

        Asked why the ads failed to defeat Justice Resnick, he shrugged and said, “It's hard to beat an incumbent.”

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