Taking aim at the “name game” in Ohio’s judicial elections, Maureen O’Connor has boiled down her plan to overhaul a system too often plagued by a lack of knowledge about candidates, a drop-off in voter participation and lingering questions about judicial impartiality. Even though the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court has simplified her proposal, it would make substantial improvements to the way Ohio elects all its judges.
O’Connor is now focused on three ideas: Moving all judicial elections to odd years and putting races at the top of the ticket; providing voters with more information through a website; and increasing the number of years in practice before a lawyer can run for judge.
While all three ideas have merit, the idea of holding all judicial elections in odd years would require the heaviest lifting, amending the Ohio Constitution.
True, O’Connor presents a well-reasoned argument for moving to a less-cluttered ballot. Because all judges, except those running for municipal court, run in even years, they compete for attention with candidates for president, governor and the U.S. Senate, among others. The result is that at least one-fourth of the voters who show up don’t vote for judges at all. There is a lot less clutter in odd years.
Pushing judicial races to the top of the ballot would not require a constitutional amendment. Ballot order is set by state law.
O’Connor has presented an interesting idea, but one with a lot of moving parts and the need to amend the state constitution, a cumbersome process. In contrast, the other parts of her judicial reform package can, and should, move forward quickly.
Many states make voter guides available. Some are provided by the secretary of state’s office; others come from state bar associations and organizations such as the League of Women Voters. Ohio lacks a comprehensive guide, so O’Connor is proposing a website that would be managed by the Ohio State Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. The three have agreed, and would also use other means to reach voters. No tax money would be needed.
On this point, too, O’Connor is persuasive, citing studies that show low awareness of the judicial branch. In a 2003 poll, the League of Women Voters of Ohio found that less than 4 percent of Ohioans could name even one justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.
Building on previous efforts by the late Thomas J. Moyer when he was chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, O’Connor has embraced longer requirements of legal experience. Here, a relatively simple change in Ohio law could produce big result. Instead of six years of legal experience required for all judicial candidates, those running for common pleas judge would need 10 years, with a 12-year requirement to run for the court of appeals and 15 years for the Ohio Supreme Court.
O’Connor isn’t giving up on other good ideas, among them doing away with partisan primaries in judicial races and extending the length of judicial terms. She has put together a thoughtful plan that would help voters make better decisions about better-qualified candidates.