Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Associated Press Legislative Review
January 29, 2015

Good morning. Thank you Julie for that introduction, and thanks to the Associated Press for holding this annual forum. Thanks as well to the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors, the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, and the Ohio Newspaper Association as event co-sponsors

We in the judicial branch of government have long recognized our reliance on the Fourth Estate to help educate and inform citizens about the courts.

The Associated Press and its members and affiliates for 169 years have been among the premier news gathering organizations that we in the judicial branch look to for quality coverage of the courts.

We also rely on the AP and its affiliates to help keep us informed of what’s happening around the state and within state government.

I’m pleased to welcome you to the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center.

We have hosted this event for several years now, and it is our pleasure to serve as the forum for important discussions of the day.

I trust you will return home with many story ideas after listening to the leaders of the state’s executive and legislative branches.

I hope you will consider a story idea important to our branch of government: judicial election reform.

I have said it many times and it’s worth repeating: Ohio has one of the best judiciaries anywhere, and that’s because of the men and women serving on the bench.

But, I am as convinced as ever that we can improve the way we select judges and enhance confidence in our judiciary.

There are three reasons we must act:

Originally, nearly two years ago, I proposed eight judicial election reform ideas. Over time, it became clear that advocating for all eight would not be productive.

So, I arrived at a three-point plan that I believe will significantly strengthen judicial elections.

The three points are:

I will run through each of these very briefly here for you today.

First, we need to elevate judicial elections. We need to lift them up. We need to make them more visible to Ohio voters and also demonstrate that they are no less valued or no less important than races in the legislative and executive branches.

How do we do this? By taking two of the ideas I proposed previously and combining them into one.

I propose that we amend the Ohio Constitution to move all judicial races to odd years while at the same time making some modest changes in the Ohio Revised Code to place these races at the top of the ballot.

This would make the odd years in Ohio not the “off-year elections” as they are so often called. Instead, these years would come to be known as the judicial years, the years when we go about the important business of electing the men and women to serve on the bench in Ohio at every level.

Judges would appear in a less crowded field, and judicial elections would get the attention they deserve. The first thing voters would see would be judicial races.

As it stands now – during presidential and mid-term elections – judicial races get lost in the shuffle.

The judiciary competes for attention with partisan candidates for president, senator, congress, governor and others who are able to shout their messages while judicial candidates can only whisper.

Many Ohioans don’t even vote for judges because they get tired by the time they reach judges’ names at the end of the ballot.

My preliminary research found that on average 25 percent of the time when voters showed up at the polls, they didn’t bother to cast a vote for judges down the ticket. In 2012, in Cuyahoga County the drop off was 40 percent.

But even more recent research suggests that the drop off may be worse. I want to share a few of those results with you today.

In a survey of more than 1,000 registered Ohio voters in October conducted by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, it found that about half of the respondents reported drop-off in judicial elections.

In addition, the survey found that 63 percent of Ohioans who participate in elections say they don’t vote for judges because they don’t know enough about them.

Both of these findings are distressing to say the least.

When often half of all eligible voters aren’t coming to the polls at all, judicial drop off means that judges are being selected by in some cases a small percentage of the electorate.

This is unacceptable. If we elevate judicial races by moving them to odd years and to the top of the ballot, voter participation will increase.

But elevating judicial elections is not enough.

We must also give voters the information they need to make informed choices.

So, we will launch a comprehensive voter engagement and information program by early summer in time for November’s election.

The program I envision will for the first time provide a judicial voter education website that will be a one-stop-shop for quality information about all individual candidates for judge at every level in all jurisdictions. The website will also contain information on what judges do and descriptions about the duties of different courts.

Another survey response found that 30 percent of Ohioans don’t vote for judges because they’re confused about the different types of judges.

The educational program will use traditional media, social media, and other methods throughout the year to educate voters about the responsibility they have to vote for judges and to actively encourage them to meet this responsibility. We will also raise the awareness of judges and judicial candidates to provide their information to populate the site.

Judges make decisions daily that impact the lives and liberties of Ohioans. We are doing a disservice to Ohio voters when they tell us we are not getting them the information they need to make an informed choice.

When taken together with my proposal to move judicial elections to separate years and up to the top of every ballot, the result will be more citizens voting for judge and doing so in an informed way.

And, more citizens will vote based on quality, substantive information about the candidates and their qualifications for office.

Let’s put an end to the name game.

We have secured three important partners in this effort: the Ohio State Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of Ohio, and the Bliss Institute, which will serve as the home for Ohio’s first ever statewide judicial voter education and outreach program. Additionally, we have secured an important media partner: the Ohio Newspaper Association.

By combining the existing resources and abilities of these organizations, we will be able to launch this program without the use of any tax dollars. Moving forward, we envision that this will become a permanent fixture of Ohio judicial elections.

I believe this has the potential to be a national model.

The third piece of my plan is to increase the basic qualifications to serve as a judge.

Over the years, several pieces of legislation have addressed increasing the number of years of practice necessary to run for or be appointed to a judgeship.

Currently, an attorney needs only six years experience before assuming the bench.

Three recent legislative proposals would have implemented longer years of practice requirements for the common pleas bench (eight years), the appellate bench (10 years), and Supreme Court Justices (12 years), although some argue that trial judges need more experience than appellate judges.

This is not a new idea, and many groups for years have advocated for better equipped judges stepping into the courtroom for the first time

As I have since I first proposed the reforms, I hope to continue to meet with legislative leaders, members of the constitutional commission, and the governor to urge them to move forward with the necessary legislation to enact these ideas.

Please visit OhioJudicialReform.org to read more about my plan.

To read more about the survey results, go to uakron.edu/bliss.

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. I’d be happy to entertain some questions.