Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Ohio Supreme Court

Stratton, O'Connor will change focus

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Republicans won both races for the Ohio Supreme Court late Tuesday, leaving them poised to wipe out a majority known for controversial rulings on school funding, tort reform and workers' compensation.

Incumbent Evelyn Stratton defeated challenger Janet Burnside in her battle to retain her seat on the court, and Lt. Gov. Maureen O'Connor beat Cincinnati Judge Tim Black in the other contested race.

The two Republicans are expected to tip the balance of power on a court that has been bitterly divided, 4-3, for several years.

"It looks very favorable that the citizens of Ohio will have a fair, balanced, unbiased court that will adopt a philosophy of judicial restraint," Ms. O'Connor said late Tuesday. "This is a real positive step for Ohioans."

With control of the court at stake, the two Supreme Court campaigns were among the most important - and most expensive - of all statewide races.

The four candidates raised a total of nearly $5 million, while special-interest groups raised millions more to campaign for the candidates they believed would support their causes.

Ms. O'Connor and Ms. Stratton drew heavy support from a coalition of doctors, insurance companies and other business interests determined to change the makeup of the court.

Mr. Black and Ms. Burnside drew support from trial lawyers and labor unions determined to protect the 4-3 majority.

Throughout the campaign, Republicans portrayed Democrats as anti-business activists beholden to greedy lawyers and unions, while Democrats described Republicans as pawns of big business who care little for working families.

While campaigning, the candidates avoided discussing cases that might one day come before the court. But the Republicans made it clear a GOP sweep would create a new, more conservative majority.

"I do expect a philosophical difference on the court," Ms. Stratton said Tuesday. "I think you'll see our court show more judicial restraint."

The current 4-3 majority includes retiring Republican Andrew Douglas. Although Ms. O'Connor and Justice Douglas are both Republicans, Ms. O'Connor seems to have little in common with the retiring justice and the rest of the majority.

She has described some of the most controversial decisions as "erroneous" and has repeatedly complained about "judicial activism."

In the past few years, the 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 tort-reform law that limited jury awards in personal-injury and product-liability cases.

In addition to the philosophical shift, the expected wins by Ms. Stratton and Ms. O'Connor mean the court will, for the first time, have more female justices than male justices. Ms. Stratton said that makes Ohio the first state Supreme Court in the nation with a female majority.

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