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Justice Speeches

Akron Commerce Club
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
March 5, 2014

Chief Justice Maureen O\'Connor

Akron Commerce Club

March 5, 2014

Thank you Terry for that introduction and for the invitation to speak before the Commerce Club.

While you didn't specify a topic, I would like to take this opportunity to speak about judicial election reform in Ohio.

I am focused on this initiative in part because of the recent historic turnover - 56 judges retired over the last two years (42 in 2012 and 14 in 2013) - and the coming change within the judiciary.

Within the next six years, we estimate that nearly 100 judges will reach the retirement age and be prevented from serving another term. And that doesn't take into consideration judges who may retire before the mandatory age limit for other reasons.

As we witness historic numbers of vacancies occurring, it illustrates clearly how important it is that Ohio has the best system possible for selecting judges.

That's one of the reasons why I announced in May "Ohio Courts 2013," an eight-point plan to strengthen judicial elections in Ohio, to empower Ohio voters, and to support the highest quality judiciary possible.

The plan identifies a series of issues and poses questions surrounding specific potential reforms for the public's consideration.

I unveiled the plan during a speech to the Ohio State Bar Association. Since then, I have been discussing it around the state at gatherings large and small, from statewide conferences to noon Rotary meetings.

Today, I would like to report on where we are with this initiative, to encourage you to participate as we move forward, and to share with you some of the feedback that has come in on the plan.

I have said it many times and repeat it to you today: Ohio has one of the best judiciaries anywhere in the country and in the world, and that's because of the men and women serving on the bench. But the turnover underscores that current judges will not always be here and raises the question: Do we have the best possible system for selecting who will serve on the bench?

I have concluded that we can do better. Why you might ask? Because polls show that even though Ohioans want to continue to elect judges they believe that judges are influenced by politics, by contributions, and by other factors.

My plan starts with recognizing that Ohioans want their judges to be elected, then examines eight ways that we might improve judicial selection.

Please let me emphasize again that each part of the plan is phrased in a question.

I don't claim to have answers to all these questions. I submit it for public consideration and have established a process for bringing people together to reach consensus on judicial reforms.

One area that is not addressed is campaign finance reform. Currently every donor to a judicial campaign is limited as to the amount that can be given. The limits are set by the Supreme Court and are deemed to be reasonable. As long as a candidate and a donor do not violate the limits there is an opportunity for a level playing field.

The tricky part is the influx of third party money. This money is unrelated to the candidate's campaign and in fact cannot have coordination with the candidate. As long as U.S. Supreme Court opinions such as Valleho and Citizens United allow special interest groups to exercise the right of free speech and to do so with their pocket books we will be unable to exercise meaningful campaign finance reform.

In May I asked judges, lawyers, and the general public to read the plan and offer their views on strengthening judicial elections by visiting www.OhioCourts2013.org. I'm renewing that call today.

When you visit the website, you will find a white paper with a thorough analysis of the ideas I have outlined in this speech, a resources section that consolidates the research from past judicial selection conferences with books and journal articles, and a forum for you to share your ideas.

This proposal was not developed in a vacuum. It is based on a careful review of previous statewide efforts to examine judicial elections in the state.

I met with representatives of many of the interest groups before the announcement to share the plan and solicit their feedback. I met with the leadership of the Ohio Judicial Conference, the Ohio State Bar Association, League of Women Voters, and the leadership of the General Assembly and the Executive branch. I also presented the plan at the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission in August and most recently met with several Ohio labor organizations.

I encourage you to join the conversation by visiting the website and commenting on these ideas or bringing your own ideas to the table.

After ten months, here's just one example of the reaction the plan has generated. As you would expect, no consensus has emerged.

As for the idea to hold all judicial elections in odd years, which stems from the need to address the voter drop off in judicial elections in even-numbered years, there were diverging thoughts.

Some Ohioans oppose the idea reasoning that the more voter involvement the better.

On the flip side, some Ohioans think that the more informed and involved voters - while fewer than those who show up at the polls in even years - would achieve better results based on principle and not popularity. And that in time the voter participation would increase with education and opportunity.

Consensus will be hard to obtain because these issues are not easy. Only through the participation of as many Ohioans as possible will we arrive at solutions that are appropriate, manageable, and worthwhile.

Thank you for allowing me the time to speak with you today. Thank you as well for you interest in this important topic.

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