Saturday, April 27, 2002

Election could change direction of Ohio court

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — The race for the only open seat on the Ohio Supreme Court could shift the ideology of a court that some have criticized as being activist as well as anti-business, overturning legislation friendly to companies.

        Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor, a Republican, and Hamilton County Municipal Judge Tim Black, a Democrat, will run Nov. 5 for the seat left open by the pending departure of Andrew Douglas.

        Justice Douglas, a Republican who in July turns 70 — the mandatory retirement age — is considered the swing vote on controversial court rulings.

        In a second Supreme Court race, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a Republican, is running for re-election against Janet Burnside, a Democrat and a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge.

        The candidates in both races are unopposed in the May 7 primary.

        Another court seat could open if the U.S. Senate approves the nomination of Justice Deborah Cook for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Should she be confirmed, Gov. Bob Taft, a fellow Republican, would appoint a replacement who would have to be elected in the fall.

        However, the O'Connor-Black race is expected to be the most contentious because of its implications.

        Justice Douglas is part of the bipartisan 4-3 majority in votes that the Ohio Chamber of Commerce has characterized as anti-business. He sided with the majority in rulings giving more rights to employees in workers' compensation cases and limiting the amount plaintiffs could collect in lawsuits.

        “Andy's a Republican with activist tendencies,” said John Green, a professor with the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “He's a little bit of a maverick and doesn't have the strict views that members of his party have.”

        The court has been criticized by Republican leaders for being activist, liberally interpreting the Constitution and recommending legislative changes.

        A conservative Republican who would interpret the Constitution more narrowly would make the court considerably less activist than a liberal Democrat with broader interpretations, Mr. Green said.

        “All things being equal, the direction of the court will be determined by the election of O'Connor or Black.”

        Conservative justices tend to rule narrowly, order fewer remedies and be less sweeping in their judgments, while liberal justices usually want to take more active role in the legislative process, Mr. Green said.

        Labor groups are backing Judge Black, who they believe will protect worker interests, while business leaders feel that Ms. O'Connor could flip the 4-3 majority, making the court more pro-business. Both say they will get involved in the race.

        The Chamber created Citizens for a Strong Ohio two years ago to protect business interests with the court. The nonprofit group funded by anonymous donors spent $4 million trying to defeat Democratic Justice Alice Robie Resnick, who joined Justice Douglas on the majority in rulings that the Chamber says hurt businesses. She was re-elected.

        Chip McConville, the Ohio Chamber's political director, said the group may air “issue ads” as it did when Justice Resnick ran against Republican Terrance O'Donnell in 2000.

        Such ads don't advocate election or defeat of specific candidates, yet refer directly to them and can attack or defend them.

        William Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said Justice Douglas is for working families and the union plans to commit all the money and grass-roots work it legally can to the campaign for his successor.


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