Chief justice wants to change judicial elections

First Posted: 1/31/2015

LIMA — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor no longer wants the judiciary to be known as the “third branch of government.”

“It’s demeaning,” she said Thursday at an Associated Press legislative preview in Columbus. “It’s like there’s first, second and third and we don’t get the blue ribbon.”

However, when it comes to elections, the judiciary tends to not get equal billing with the other government branches. O’Connor said that statistically, 25 percent of the electorate do not participate in judicial elections, with the races often being relegated to the bottom of the ballot.

“When I was first up for election, I couldn’t find my name on the ballot,” Judge David Cheney of Allen County Common Pleas Court said. “It turns out I was the only race on the second page.”

O’Connor has been pushing for changes to how the judiciary is elected in three ways, including increasing the qualifications for becoming a judge, moving up from the current six years practicing law. O’Connor also hopes to provide more edcuation to voters through a comprehensive website that contains information on all judicial races in all precincts, as well as a description of what judges do and the roles of each level of the courts. That website is expected to be up by the November election.

O’Connor’s other suggestion is to have a constitutional amendment to move all judicial races to odd-numbered years, eliminating the judiciary races going up against presidential or gubernatorial elections. By having “judicial years” for elections and moving the races up to the top of the ballot, O’Connor said this can bring more attention to this branch of government.

“We need to elevate judicial elections,” she said. “We need to demonstrate to voters that they are no less important than our legislative or executive branch races.”

This last suggestion has been met with some skepticism, among both legislators and other judges.

“A lot of times when it comes to judicial elections, people don’t pay enough attention and people don’t turn out for the off years,” House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, said.

Judge Frederick Pepple of Auglaize County Common Pleas Court argued that different parts of the state have different issues when it comes to judicial elections, and while O’Connor’s approach may be helpful in a large county with multiple judicial races, smaller counties have fewer judges on the ballot and tend to know the candidates already before the election, creating more participation.

“People know who those people are,” he said. “Are you really going to tell me that moving it to an odd-numbered year would improve participation and have a better educated electorate? I don’t think so.”

Last year’s election supports that assertion, with the Allen County Probate Court race between Glenn Derryberry and Carlene Huston-Kinworthy having high participation, with fewer than 1,000 out of the more than 27,000 voters not voting for either candidate. In the same year, more than 3,700 voters chose not to vote in either Ohio Supreme Court race.

Cheney maintained that unless voters have direct involvement in the judicial system, they may not have as strong a desire to participate in judicial elections.

“Unless you have a brother, sister or parent in the system, there’s a good chance you’re not going to pay attention to the judicial aspect of things,” he said. “That’s not to say that’s how I’d like it to be, but I think that’s the way it is.”