Chief Justice O’Connor Announces Plan to Strengthen Judicial Elections
During her annual address today at the Ohio State Bar Association convention, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor announced an eight-point plan to strengthen judicial elections, and she invited Ohioans to visit a website to participate in a statewide discussion about the ideas.
While indicating that the proposals are preliminary and a final plan will be developed after considering public input, Chief Justice O’Connor suggested that Ohio consider a range of options from moving all judicial elections to odd-numbered years, to bolstering voter information efforts, to lengthening judges’ terms and increasing the qualifications for judicial office.
“In a constitutional democracy the judicial branch is a bedrock institution that resolves disputes, ensures order by adjudicating criminal offenses, and protects the rights of minorities and individuals,” Chief Justice O’Connor said. “There are few matters more important in our democracy than ensuring that we have a system in place that results in the best possible men and women serving on the bench. What is the best way to do this in Ohio? Can we improve the system that we have?”
Chief Justice O’Connor said Ohio enjoys one of the best systems of justice anywhere in the world but pointed to several persistent problems that are cause for concern and were her motivation for the proposal:
- Polls show that the public views judges as susceptible to political influence.
- Voter participation in judicial elections on average is 25 percent less than participation in races for the executive and legislative branches.
- There is evidence that the electorate could use more information about judicial races when they step into the voting booth.
She indicated that the plan, titled “Ohio Courts 2013: A Proposal for Strengthening Judicial Elections,” was developed after a careful review of previous reform movements and months of intensive research. The complete plan is detailed in a white paper available on the website where citizens and interested parties can read the plan and offer their perspective. The website is www.OhioCourts2013.org.
In the speech, Chief Justice O’Connor said she was inspired in part to develop her plan because this year marks the 45th Anniversary of the Modern Courts Amendment, the last major reform of Ohio courts.
“It has been 45 years since we last enacted comprehensive reforms in the Ohio judicial system,” Chief Justice O’Connor said. “There is one piece of unfinished business from the 1968 Modern Courts Amendment, and that is a reform of our judicial elections. Thoughtful people have discussed the topic ever since, and I believe that now is the time to come together as a state and to arrive at a package of improvements that we can enact into law.”
The previous statewide efforts to examine judicial elections that Chief Justice O’Connor consulted in developing her plan included the 2003 Next Steps conference and the 2009 Forum on Judicial Selection, both of which were led by the late Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and included the state bar, the League of Women Voters Ohio Chapter, legislative leaders, academic experts, and groups representing business and labor. The plan was shared with representatives of many of these groups before its unveiling today.
The plan identifies a series of issues and poses questions surrounding specific potential reforms for public consideration. Over the next several months Chief Justice O’Connor said she will lead a public discussion about the plan on the website and in a series of meetings with the hope of refining the proposal and moving forward with a final plan in 2013.
The eight questions posed by the Chief Justice include:
- Should Ohio Change the Law So Judicial Races Are No Longer Listed at the End of the Ballot?
- Should All Judicial Elections Be Held in Odd-Numbered Years?
- Should Ohio Centralize & Expand Its Civic Education Programming and Institute a Judicial Voter Guide?
- Should Ohio Eliminate Party Affiliation on the Ballot in Judicial Primaries?
- Should Ohio Join the Other States that Have a Formal, Non-Partisan System for Recommending Nominees to the Governor to Fill Judicial Vacancies?
- Should Appointments to the Ohio Supreme Court Require the Advice and Consent of the Ohio Senate?
- Should Ohio Increase the Basic Qualifications for Serving as a Judge?
- Should Ohio Increase the Length of Judges’ Terms?
She said it is time to move beyond recurring debate about abolishing judicial elections and cited a recent poll that found 80 percent of Ohioans oppose so-called merit selection.
“Ohio has a long tradition of leading the way when it comes to reforms in the judicial system,” the Chief Justice said. “Now is the time to revisit this topic once and for all, not to do away with judicial elections, which voters made clear they want, but to strengthen them. I hope you will join me in having this conversation.”