Friday, October 18, 2002

Court's powerful; few pay attention

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer




Candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court will spend millions of dollars this fall in pursuit of one of the most powerful jobs in the state.

The winners will make decisions that touch the lives of almost every Ohioan, from school children to union laborers to the leaders of multibillion-dollar corporations.

The stakes are high, and the candidates know it. So do the political parties that support them and the financial backers who bankroll their campaigns.

But the people who matter most - the voters - are still trying to figure out why they should care.

Recent polls suggest Ohioans know less about the four Supreme Court candidates this year than those for any other state office on the Nov. 5 ballot.

As the court has become more controversial - some say more "activist" - the justices' low profiles have become a potential problem.

The members of the court are now exercising more power and affecting more lives than better-known elected officials. And yet, they remain strangers to many voters.

"People don't know who the members of the court are," said Chip McConville, political director of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. "They don't know the justices' positions from a philosophical viewpoint and they don't comprehend the economic impact of what the court does."

The candidates and their supporters say that lack of knowledge is obvious on the campaign trail, where the voters they meet routinely have trouble naming even one of the seven justices now serving on the court.

"There are some risks to the public," said John Green, a political science professor with the University of Akron's Ray Bliss Institute. "These are absolutely critical races. If people don't know the candidates, they may not be able to vote for the kind of government they want."

A divided court

The Supreme Court races this year pit Republican Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor against Democrat Tim Black, and Republican incumbent Evelyn Stratton against Democrat Janet Burnside.

Here's a primer on the Ohio Supreme Court:
What is the court?
The court is made up of seven justices who are elected to six-year termsWho is running this year? Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a Republican, is running for re-election against Janet Burnside, a Democrat. Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor, a Republican, and Tim Black, a Democrat, are vying for the seat of Justice Andrew Douglas, who is retiring.
Are Supreme Court races partisan?
They are officially nonpartisan. But candidates in the general election emerge from political primaries in the spring.
What does the court do?
The court has the final say on disputes involving state law. The justices are the last appeal for death row inmates and the last stop for any parties engaged in a dispute over the meaning of Ohio's constitution.
How do those decisions affect Ohioans?
The court has declared the state's system of funding public schools unconstitutional and has thrown out a law that limited jury awards in personal injury and product liability cases.
Why do special interest groups care so much?
Because the court's decisions can cost them millions of dollars. The law limiting jury awards would have protected doctors and insurance companies from jury awards that they believe are unreasonably high.
Why is this election so important?
Most of the court's big decisions have been decided by a 4-3 vote. Justice Douglas was usually in that majority and Justice Stratton in the minority. This election could solidify the majority or swing it the other way.
Although those aren't household names, political insiders know them well. They see the Supreme Court races as the most important this year because the winners will determine whether the court's current 4-3 majority remains intact.

In the past few years, that majority has declared the state's system of funding public schools unconstitutional, has required that businesses provide greater insurance coverage to employees and has thrown out a law that limited jury awards in personal injury and product liability cases.

This election is crucial because two seats - one held by Justice Stratton and one by retiring Justice Andrew Douglas - are up for grabs.

Although both are Republicans, Justice Stratton consistently votes with the minority while Justice Douglas usually joins the majority.

Democrats, labor unions and trial lawyers want to preserve that majority and are backing candidates they believe will do so: Mr. Black and Ms. Burnside. Their campaigns portray them as "independent" and "pro-family."

Republicans, insurance companies and the health care industry support candidates they believe will change the balance of power: Justice Stratton and Ms. O'Connor. Their campaigns describe them as "independent" and "pro-business."

Special interest groups have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into those campaigns, prompting the candidates to accuse one another of being beholden to special interests.

All the candidates have repeatedly said that no group - even those that support them - should presume to know how they would vote on specific cases.

But such promises have done little to stem the flow of money from groups determined to influence the Supreme Court races.

"You have a business coalition on one side, and you have trial lawyers and labor on the other side," said Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University. "There is heavy interest."

So far, though, that interest has not extended to the average voter.

An Ohio Poll last month showed that large numbers of likely voters either didn't know the candidates' names or couldn't distinguish one from another.

The poll, sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, found that 23 percent of voters answered "don't know" when asked to choose between Ms. O'Connor and Mr. Black, and that 51 percent did so when asked to pick either Ms. Stratton or Ms. Burnside.

No other statewide race had a "don't know" response higher than 14 percent. "The voters are still learning about these candidates," said Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll.

History suggests that many will never think they have learned enough to cast an informed vote. In the 2000 election, 20 percent of the 4.8 million Ohioans who voted in the general election skipped at least one of the Supreme Court races on their ballot.

Mr. Rademacher said the blank ballots, known as "roll off," are common in Supreme Court races because the candidates are not as recognizable as other state officials and voters don't have the time or energy to learn about them.

"If you think about the lives that average voters lead, a lot of their time is spent on family, work and other pressures. That leaves very little time for politics," Mr. Rademacher said. "So the greatest attention is often paid to the highest profile races."

The confusion is made worse by a system that discourages candidates from saying much about how they would vote on specific cases. The judicial code of conduct limits what they can say about cases that might come before them.

"That's why they tend to run campaigns based on pretty pictures of their families and their dogs," Mr. Green said. "They just can't talk about anything."

Stakes are high

Mr. McConville senses the confusion among voters when he speaks at community meetings about the importance of the Supreme Court. He starts his spiel by showing the audience a photo of the seven justices and asking if anyone can name them.

"I'm lucky to get one hand," said Mr. McConville, who campaigns for the Republican candidates.

He said voters know their governor, state legislators and city council members, but they don't know the justices.

"With the Supreme Court, you can't interact with them," said Richard Mason, director of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers and a supporter of the Democratic candidates. "You don't write letters to them and you can't lobby judges, so there's less personal contact."

Several political action committees, which are not affiliated with the candidates, have launched TV and radio ads promoting the candidates they favor and criticizing those they don't. Two years ago, those ads turned nasty in an expensive, unsuccessful bid to oust Justice Alice Robie Resnick.

The tone has been more positive this year, but the ads still tend to pigeonhole candidates as either "pro-labor or pro-business," "activist or conservative."

One group, Citizens for an Independent Court, targets the Republican-backed candidates and claims big businesses are attempting to buy justices who will serve their interests. Another, the Ohio Prosperity Project, compares the decisions of Democratic-endorsed justices to "the world's costliest natural disasters."

Candidates on both sides say voters' lack of knowledge about the Supreme Court race makes such campaigns especially effective - and potentially dangerous.

"It's a vast oversimplification that is not accurate," said Mr. Black, the Hamilton County Municipal Court judge who is battling Ms. O'Connor.

But Mr. Black and other candidates admit it's not easy to give voters a more detailed, more nuanced picture of the court.

"People have a hard time seeing how we impact their lives," said Ms. Stratton. "They read about us in the paper, but it's not easy to see how we affect them."


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