Ohio chief justice urges changes to judicial elections

By Marc KovacR-C Capital Bureau Published:

COLUMBUS -- Ohio should increase the qualifications for serving as a judge and make strides to better educate voters on bench elections, the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court told an audience in Columbus Thursday.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor also wants to shift judicial elections to odd years and move races to the top of the ballot to give them better exposure.

"Let's elevate judicial races by moving them to their own year and to the top of the ballot," she said. "Let's educate voters by building the best ongoing judicial election information and engagement program this country has ever seen. And let's increase the level of experience we require of our judicial candidates."

O'Connor offered recommendations during a speech before the Ohio State Bar Association, the same venue where, a year ago, she offered a series of suggestions for revamping Ohio's judicial system.

She was careful to submit her ideas in question form rather than urging passage of the ideas as offered, saying she would take ensuing months to meet with groups and further develop a final plan.

The process resulted in the three-point approach the chief justice outlined Thursday.

O'Connor wants to place judicial elections at the top of odd-year ballots, a move she said would ensure Supreme Court and other bench races don't get lost in the shuffle of presidential elections or gubernatorial and statewide contests.

O'Connor also announced the launch of a "comprehensive voter engagement and information program," a new website to be developed to inform Ohioans about judicial candidates.

The state bar association, League of Women Voters and the University of Akron will all be involved in the effort.

"By combining the existing resources and abilities of these organizations, we will be able to launch this program for the 2015 judicial races without the using any tax dollars," O'Connor said. "Moving forward, we envision that this will become a permanent fixture of Ohio judicial elections."

The chief justice also wants to increase the qualifications for serving as a judge to require more years of legal practice before assuming the bench.

The changes will require support from lawmakers and voters.

O'Connor's original proposal a year ago included several other possible changes, namely the elimination of party labels on primary ballots, an increase in judicial terms and a revamped process for gubernatorial judicial appointments.

She said there is not support to implement those changes at this time.

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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