Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor has long supported a system where justices at the appellate level would be initially appointed rather than elected, and that would instead offer
voters the opportunity to determine in subsequent retention elections whether the appointed justice should remain on the bench, a position she shares with her predecessor, Chief Justice Tom Moyer. While past initiatives have failed, O’Connor’s enthusiasm for judicial selection reform is not dampened.
“What we need is a system for selecting judges that is fair, that gives the people a voice, that allows citizens to make informed decisions,” O’Connor said, “that as much as possible reduces the undue influence of politics on the judicial system, and results in a judiciary that is highly qualified, independent and impartial.” O’Connor would also like to see party affiliations removed from primary elections, calling party affiliation “irrelevant” and saying it has no place in judicial selection.
O’Connor suggests that the time may be nearing for such a new reforms to be instituted in Ohio. “Recent events have led to a groundswell of support for renewing the discussion on judicial selection reform, from the bench, to leaders of the bar, to the business community, and editorial boards. I intend to lead a concerted effort in the coming months to arrive at a package of reforms that will enjoy widespread support and can be enacted into law.”
The “recent events” O’Connor is referring to may be the election of Butler County Domestic Relations Court Judge Sharon Kennedy to the Ohio Supreme Court. According to a Hamilton, Ohio JournalNews article, Kennedy has weathered substantial criticism, with some media outlets proposing that Kennedy was less qualified than incumbent Justice Yvette McGee Brown, and that voters incorrectly decided the election in Kennedy’s favor. Uninformed voters, who had insufficient knowledge to select a candidate, and voters who are simply attracted to Irish names have both been suggested as possible causes.
Kennedy disagrees, asserting that her main advantage was that her message resonated with voters, and that she is perfectly qualified for the position. She also argued that if the electorate were truly not informed about judicial elections and did not vote based upon qualifications, “then none of [the other Justices’] races have any significance and the people didn’t vote for their credentials either.”
And yes, it may actually be true that many of the people didn’t vote for the sitting court’s credentials. That fact that the problem is endemic to the judicial election system doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable – it indicates, rather, a system that needs to be examined, and if necessary modified to better serve the people of Ohio.
The role of the judiciary is too important to allow chance or something as occupationally unrelated as the origin of a surname to dictate the composition of the bench. The law should endeavor to be above politics, so that the best possible person is selected to be its custodian. Justice O’Connor has said that “everything should be on the table, and we should all keep an open mind about what might work.” We hope that the people of Ohio are equally as open to change, and soon get the chance to choose for their state a better way of selecting judges.