In revising the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct, the Ohio Supreme Court last week added clarity to the complex rules governing judicial campaigns, reflecting issues raised during the 2012 elections.
One change will require candidates who previously stepped down from the bench to refer to themselves in campaign materials as “former” or “retired.” That came in response to the unusual, but successful, campaign of William O’Neill, a former appeals court judge, for the Ohio Supreme Court. O’Neill, who referred to himself as “Judge O’Neill,” spent virtually no money on his campaign, but unseated Justice Robert Cupp.
Another change ended a ban on tiered judicial fundraising events, in which higher donations bring greater access to candidates. The ban tripped up Summit County Common Pleas Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer, a lawyer for 30 years, in her successful race for probate court.
The high court also raised judicial campaign contribution limits to reflect the consumer price index, allowing individuals, organizations and political parties to give more at a time of record spending on other campaigns. Individuals will be able to give $3,600 for each primary and general election, up from $3,450.
The fixes also reflected the continuing difficulties posed by electing judges in the first place, requiring steps to insulate the judicial branch from the harsh world of partisan politics. Instead of tweaks to the system, bolder steps deserve consideration, such as an experiment in public funding, dealing squarely with the way political contributions erode public confidence in the judiciary.
This year’s Ohio Supreme Court races, in which two candidates with Irish-American surnames defeated well-respected incumbents, also renewed interest in an even better change, merit selection, used in some form by two-thirds of the states. Instead of a “name game,” a commission selects from among qualified candidates, with the governor making appointments and the state Senate adding confirmation. Those appointed later face a retention election. Such a system would preserve judicial integrity, while giving voters the final say on a justice’s performance.