FOCUS ON OHIO POLITICS Justice’s bid for governor stirs up busy race

State Supreme Court Justice William M. O’Neill, a Chagrin Falls Democrat, announced last week he’s running for governor – but said he wouldn’t resign as a judge for now.

O’Neill’s platform will call for “legalization of recreational marijuana, a higher minimum wage, a decrease in in-state tuition, and the funding of mental health institutions across the state.”

O’Neill said he’d remain on the Supreme Court till he’s “certified for the ballot in February of 2018 … To do so any earlier is unfair to the 2 million Ohioans who elected me.” Presumably he’ll strive for fairness by recusing himself from cases that touch on his platform. (Example: Marijuana laws.)

With all due respect to O’Neill “2 million Ohioans,” it’s not clear, thanks to Ohio’s low-info judicial ballot, if the voters who supported him were specifically thinking “Bill O’Neill” – or a candidate they thought they “knew” because he had an Irish-American surname that sounds like the names of former or incumbent Justices Kennedy, O’Connor, O’Donnell (Republicans) and A. William and Francis Sweeney (Democrats).

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State Auditor David Yost, a Columbus Republican running for attorney general, said O’Neill should step down from the high court now. Ohio’s Code of Judicial Conduct, it says “a judge shall resign from office when he or she becomes a candidate in a primary or general election for a nonjudicial office.” But the code doesn’t define when someone (officially) becomes a candidate, so O’Neill, given that ambiguity, appears to be following the canon’s spirit.

The Supreme Court’s now 6-1 Republican, with O’Neill its lone Democrat. So maybe it’s Democrats who should have a beef with O’Neill. Assuming he does leave the court to run for governor, Republican Gov. John R. Kasich would appoint O’Neill’s successor, likely one of the GOP’s two endorsed 2018 Supreme Court candidates, Court of Appeals Judges Craig Baldwin, of Newark, or Mary DeGenaro, of suburban Youngstown. Baldwin or DeGenaro would gain the advantage of incumbency.

Four Democrats already are running for governor – former Rep. Connie Pillich of Cincinnati; Sen. Joseph Schiavoni of suburban Youngstown; former U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, of suburban Akron; and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. You wonder what they’re thinking as they campaign night and day while O’Neill, for now, stays above it all.

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The real question is why O’Neill is the Supreme Court’s only Democrat. For some reason, Democrats lost their one-time focus on electing a pro-injured-Ohioans Supreme Court. In the ’70s, for instance, Democrats and the AFL-CIO helped elect A. William Sweeney and former Cleveland Mayor Ralph S. Locher to the court, giving it a Democratic majority.

Democrats bolstered that in 1978, when voters promoted Justice Frank D. Celebrezze to chief justice. Celebrezze, as head of Ohio’s judiciary, may have been his own worst enemy. But it’s virtually impossible to imagine Celebrezze’s court ruling as the GOP-majority Supreme Court did last December. It limited the damages a teenage rape victim could win – thanks to a 2005 (“tort reform”) bill sponsored by then-Sen. Steve Stivers, a suburban Columbus Republican now in Congress.

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“I cannot accept the proposition,” Justice O’Neill wrote in his dissenting opinion, “that a teenager who is raped by a pastor fits into a preordained formula for damages. Are we really ready to affirm the legislature’s decision to say to a future victim, ‘We don’t know you, we don’t know the facts of your case, and we don’t know what a duly empaneled jury is going to say, but your damages are a maximum of $500,000?’ No parent of a teenage daughter would accept that outcome as being just.”

But Ohio’s Supreme Court did.

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