In a proposal to strengthen judicial elections in Ohio, Maureen O’Connor readily dismisses the best way forward, merit selection. The chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court points reasonably to the repeated rejections by state voters of the method, judges first appointed on their qualifications, then standing for retention elections.
What O’Connor advances are eight smaller, practical steps, the centerpiece the elimination of partisan judicial primaries. Ohio is the only state in which partisan primaries are followed by nonpartisan general elections.
O’Connor argues that nonpartisan elections offer a buffer from the partisan push and pull, increasing stability on the bench and protecting judicial impartiality. Still, this part of the plan deserves careful noodling, especially in light of possible unintended consequences.
Because the plan does not deal with campaign spending, it leaves room for mischief by political parties and large donors, even higher spending levels, as noted by Justice William O’Neill, who ran on a platform of “money and judges don’t mix.” Faced with a nonpartisan primary with more than two candidates, those determined to have influence may donate twice, once to get their candidate nominated, and, again, in the general election.
Bolder reform steps deserve consideration, such as an experiment in public funding, dealing squarely with the way political contributions erode public confidence in the judiciary.
The chief justice’s other suggestions are all worthy. They include holding judicial elections in odd-numbered years to avoid overshadowing by state and federal races, strengthening judicial appointment panels, which make suggestions to the governor when vacancies occur, and changing state law so that judicial races aren’t always at the bottom of the ballot and neglected by voters.
O’Connor also would require that appointments to vacancies on the high court receive Senate confirmation. She would increase the qualifications to be a judge (now just six years of legal experience), lengthen judicial terms to 10 years or 12 years and provide voters more information through campaign guides, televised debates and expanded use of cameras in the courtroom.
These ideas confront long-recognized problems, including diminished trust in the judiciary, low voter participation and an electorate often ill-informed about candidates for judge. In the main, they would elevate the quality of justice.