As super PACs spent more than $30 million seeking, unsuccessfully, to oust U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, William O’Neill hardly spent a dime winning a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. What was O’Neill’s secret? It helped that the Democrat previously had appeared on the statewide ballot. The Ohio Republican Party aided his cause by unleashing a cheap shot that generated a bit of free media. Now O’Neill will join a high court that includes an O’Connor and an O’Donnell.
Catch the pattern? Races for the Supreme Court and other judicial posts long have been something of a name game. The practice appeared to gain new momentum in this week’s election, voters taking the rare step of removing two respected incumbents, Robert Cupp losing to O’Neill, Yvette McGee Brown to Sharon Kennedy.
The name Brown has had its own favorable place at the polls. Yet, in this instance, Kennedy prevailed, despite a rating of “not recommended” from the Ohio State Bar Association. At it is, Brown received a rating of “highly recommended,” the Democrat also gaining praise for her performance and temperament from Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican.
The Supreme Court has had it moments of turmoil, most notably the 2000 election year when business groups poured cash into an effort (unsuccessful) to remove then-Justice Alice Robie Resnick. This week’s outcome is troubling in a different way, yet it renews concerns about the concept of electing justices and judges in the first place.
For his part, O’Neill served as an appeals court judge for a decade. He can do the job at the high court. Kennedy, now a county judge, no doubt will navigate the transition to justice. Yet it is unsettling that when evaluated by her peers, they essentially said she doesn’t belong in the position.
Might voters have sent a message of consistency in judicial philosophy? Hardly. O’Neill and Kennedy are far apart in their approaches. What Ohio has in this episode is yet another argument for merit selection of justices. The election of justices is infected enough with political money. Add the name game, and the result too often falls short of delivering the best to the court.