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Monday, November 26, 2012

Courts - Voters throw out two highly capable Ohio Supreme Court justices, replacing them with " two candidates blessed with Irish names"

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote in a long column on Nov. 24th that begins:

Greater Cleveland voters have a long history of making big mistakes in judicial elections.

But in two contests decided Nov. 6, they outdid themselves.

They did it by ousting two incumbents -- one from each political party -- who were challenged by opponents with credentials so inferior that no rational person could justify the outcome.

But the losses of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg and 11th Ohio District Court of Appeals Judge Mary Jane Trapp were only two of a handful of outcomes in judicial races around the state -- including two contests for the Ohio Supreme Court -- that have again intensified calls for changes in the way we select judges.

Leading that charge is none other than the biggest judicial vote-getter in recent state history: Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

To her great credit, O'Connor told me last week that she would begin to seek support for a system under which candidates with superb credentials are appointed to the state's appellate courts and later face retention elections, in which voters would decide whether or not to keep them there. Her merit-selection hybrid proposal would apply only to appellate-level court races, including the Ohio Supreme Court, not to candidates for the Common Pleas or Municipal courts.

O'Connor's idea will face stiff opposition, but critics can fall into one of only two categories: They will either be horribly misinformed or won't really care about the quality of Ohio's judiciary.

The governor, legislature and Ohio State Bar Association should do the right thing and work with the chief justice to implement her idea.

Let's look at the election carnage that led to all this:

For the first time in 40 years, two incumbent Supreme Court justices -- both highly regarded -- lost to less qualified opponents.

Republican Justice Robert Cupp was beaten by a Democrat with a far better ballot name: former appellate Judge William O'Neill. And Justice Yvette McGee Brown, a Democrat, failed to keep her seat as the high court's first black woman, losing to Butler County Common Pleas Judge Sharon Kennedy, a Republican.

Both McGee Brown and Cupp received the state bar association's highest rating of "highly recommended." Kennedy received a "not recommended" and O'Neill a "recommended."

"Both parties lost with kind of their MVPs, most valuable players, good people, good jurists," said O'Connor. "It wasn't a qualifications issue. Democrats respected Bob [Cupp] and Republicans respected Yvette [McGee Brown]. We have to take a long, hard look at how we elect, at the very least, our appellate judges."

Closer to home, what happened was even worse.

In the combined rankings of the four bar associations that rated judicial candidates in Cuyahoga County, Synenberg, a Republican, was one of only two judicial candidates in contested races to score a perfect 4.0. Her opponent, Cassandra Collier-Williams, tallied a lowly 1.75 -- one of the worst ratings of all judicial candidates on the ballot.

Nevertheless, Collier-Williams won by a comfortable margin -- not because she's even half as qualified as Synenberg, but because she has a better ballot name and was endorsed by the local Democratic Party.

Joe Hallett, senior editor at the Columbus Dispatch, has an opinion piece titled "Voters should have more to go on than just names." Some quotes:
[Justices] Cupp and McGee Brown received “highly recommended” ratings from the Ohio State Bar Association. They are members of arguably the best Supreme Court Ohio has had in the past 30 years.

That didn’t matter. On Nov. 6, Ohio voters replaced them with two candidates blessed with Irish names. McGee Brown was defeated by Sharon Kennedy, a Republican domestic-relations judge who was rated “not recommended” by the state bar. Cupp was beaten by Democrat William O’Neill, a former state appellate judge who had been working as an emergency-room nurse.

When the new court is seated in January, it will resemble politicians at a St. Patrick’s Day parade: O’Connor, O’Donnell, O’Neill and Kennedy.

It is unfair to prejudge O’Neill and Kennedy. We can only hope they will be fine justices. But if voters knew anything about McGee Brown and Cupp, they probably would not have replaced them.

And that’s the problem: Voters know virtually nothing about the judges they elect and are left to play the name game. The system limits judges’ ability to campaign, to raise money and even to make statements that might be construed as political. They are not permitted to be identified by party on general election ballots.

In short, we make judges politicians at election time but deny them the crucial opportunities to communicate with voters the way other politicians do.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 26, 2012 01:02 PM
Posted to Courts in general