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Guest column/Let’s work together to strengthen judicial elections

June 2, 2013
Weirton Daily Times

It would be hard to think of an area of our society that is not affected by judges and the courts.

From approving adoptions to settling estates, from marriage licenses to divorce decrees, from traffic tickets to serious violent crime, judges in Ohio handle more than 1 million cases each year, and behind every one of these cases there are real people and families seeking justice.

Thus, there are few matters more important in our democracy than how we select our judges. I believe we can do a better job, and I am inviting Ohioans to join me in this cause.

Make no mistake, we enjoy one of the best systems of justice anywhere in the world.

Extraordinarily talented and hard-working people make up the Ohio judiciary, and the work they do every day is remarkable. But there are three reasons why I believe we can do even better: 1) There are problems with the public's perceptions of judges and the judicial branch. 2) Voter participation in judicial elections is less than it should be. 3) There is evidence that more can be done to educate and inform the electorate.

The public perception problem arises again and again in poll after poll. A poll by the National Center for State Courts found that 59 percent of Americans believe courts' decisions are influenced by politics. A recent poll found that the public's view of the U.S. Supreme Court - viewed as a barometer of the general perception of the judicial branch - has reached an all-time low of 44 percent.

Voter participation in judicial races is consistently much less than in other contests. For example, I researched voter participation in Ohio over the past decade and found that on average one quarter of all voters who come to the polls in statewide elections do not cast a ballot in Ohio Supreme Court contests.

And those voters who do stick around for the judicial races at the back of the ballot often express frustration that they do not have sufficient information on which to base their vote.

A national study recently found that 14.5 percent of voters leaving the booth could not name even one of the judicial candidates on the ballot they just cast.

"Ohio Courts 2013: A Proposal for Strengthening Judicial Elections" offers an eight-point plan for public consideration and establishes a process for bringing people together to reach consensus on judicial reforms. Judges, lawyers, and the general public are encouraged to read the plan and offer their views on strengthening judicial elections by visiting OhioCourts2013.org.

Judicial elections have been a matter of controversy in Ohio since they were first established in the Constitution of 1851.

However, there is widespread agreement today that we should elect our judges. During the last 75 years, there have been multiple attempts to do away with judicial elections entirely in Ohio, and voters time and again have reaffirmed by large margins that they want judges to be accountable in competitive elections. Most recently, a poll in December 2012 found that more than 80 percent of Ohioans oppose doing away with competitive elections.

My proposal was developed based on a careful review of previous efforts to examine judicial elections in the state, including 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 Ohio State Bar Association, the League of Women Voters Ohio Chapter, legislative leaders, academic experts, and groups representing business and labor.

The plan identifies a series of issues and poses questions surrounding specific potential reforms for public consideration:

* 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 and 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, nonpartisan 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?

During the next several months I will be leading 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.

For as long as we have had judges in Ohio, we have had discussions about the best way to select the people who serve in this important roll. For the last 45 years at least, this debate has centered on whether we should appoint judges rather than elect them, but the voters in our democracy have made it clear that they want their judges elected.

I believe now is the time to revisit this topic once and for all, not to do away with judicial elections, but to strengthen them. I hope you will join me in having this conversation.

(O'Connor is the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.)

 
 

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