What is the role of the Ohio Supreme Court?
The Ohio Supreme Court is Ohio’s highest court. It has final authority over interpretations of Ohio law and the Ohio Constitution.
What decisions does the Ohio Supreme Court make?
The Ohio Supreme Court makes final decisions about a wide variety of public policies, ranging from how public utilities are regulated to the imposition of the death penalty to state legislative and congressional voting districts. Important cases that have gone up through common pleas courts and appellate courts end up in the Ohio Supreme Court for final judgment.
Although the court heard fewer cases in 2020, the Ohio Supreme Court receives around 2,000 cases per year. In addition to deciding cases, the Ohio Constitution gives the Ohio Supreme Court the authority to regulate the practice of law for the state. This includes updating the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct, the ethics rules for judges and justices.
Who sits on the bench of the Ohio Supreme Court?
There are seven members of the Ohio Supreme Court. The current court is made up of Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy along with justices Jennifer Brunner, Pat DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Patrick F. Fischer, Joseph Deters, and Melody Stewart.
How are judges selected for the Ohio Supreme Court?
Not all states elect their supreme court justices, but we do here in Ohio. Terms for judges in Ohio last six years, including justices of the Ohio Supreme Court. Voters will elect three justices for the Ohio Supreme Court in November 2024.
What are the contribution limits for Ohio Supreme Court elections?
Individuals and organizations (including corporations) can make campaign contributions to judicial candidates, just like they can to any other candidates. If a candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court faces a primary challenge, the contributions from individuals, PACs, and organizations are limited to $4,100. For the general election, contribution limits for candidates for justice are $7,500 from individuals and organizations. Total direct contributions are expected to add up to millions in this year’s Ohio Supreme Court races. And that does not even include the “independent expenditure” money spent by outside groups on advertising for or against judicial candidates. Learn more about how to follow the moneyand figure out who is trying to influence your vote, and why.
Party Labels for Ohio Supreme Court Candidates
In 2022, for the first time in more than 100 years, party labels accompanied the names of Ohio Supreme Court and Ohio Court of Appeals candidates on the ballot. This was after the supermajority in the Ohio General Assembly passed Senate Bill 80 requiring the political affiliations for these higher level judicial candidates to appear on ballots in general elections.
Conventional wisdom had been that Ohio’s unlabeled Supreme Court ballot benefited Republican candidates. However, Ohio is no longer a swing state. The GOP-dominated state legislature saw a potential advantage in mandating partisan labels in general elections for these important races, and they were correct: Ohio voters elected only Republicans to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2022.
On November 7, 2023, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner filed a lawsuit in federal court against Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, and others in response to SB 80.
Her claim states that the law violates the free speech, due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution because it runs contradictory to the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct. The code states that judicial candidates “have a special obligation to ensure the judicial system is viewed as fair, impartial, and free from partisanship,” and includes certain rules of conduct for campaigning. Brunner argued that this would bar her and others from engaging “in all of the types of activities that other partisan candidates who are non-judicial candidates are permitted to engage in.”
She also argues that the law causes the public to view the Ohio Supreme Court justices as more partisan and less likely to be trusted.
Brunner is seeking an injunction to stop the new law from affecting future ballots. Ohioans voted solidly for Trump in 2020, and then in 2022 – the first year with partisan labels– three Republican candidates were elected to the state’s highest court. Democratic Justice Brunner lost her race for chief justice against Republican Sharon Kennedy.
Even with the new ballot format, judicial candidates are still forbidden to make promises when they campaign and they often choose to say little. This means that political spending and dark money ads can take on greater importance.
Why We Should Care
No matter our race, party, or zip code, most of us believe that our elected leaders should reflect our values and govern for all of us, no exceptions. That includes the justices on our state’s highest court, the Ohio Supreme Court.
The last few years have demonstrated how fragile our democracy can be when confronted with a global pandemic, civil unrest, and extreme political partisanship. Fortunately, state court judges have stepped up during this difficult time to protect the sanctity of our elections and stop radical politicians from taking away our rights and freedoms. We need independent state courts now more than ever.
Here in Ohio, voters choose who sits on the Ohio Supreme Court.
We are at a critical point right now. Fair elections, fair maps, and individual freedoms are on the line. We have the power to shape our Ohio Supreme Court if we vote.
This November, there are three Ohio Supreme Court races on the ballot. We have the opportunity as Ohio voters to elect justices who will share our values, keep checks and balances in place to protect against extreme politicians, and preserve our rights and freedoms.
The next court could hear cases on topics with the potential to re-shape Ohio’s politics and the lives of its residents. They include cases such as:
- Home Rule
- The Future of Abortion Access
- The Future of Recreational Marijuana
- Public Corruption
What’s at Stake: Hot-Button Cases Expected for the Next Court
In the section below you can find details about six important cases that will come before the court next year. Expand each section for more details on each issue.
Home rule or local control is embedded in Article XVIII of the Ohio Constitution. Municipal corporations (cities and villages) have certain powers granted to them, including the power of local self-government, the exercise of certain police powers, and the ownership and operation of public utilities.
These laws are often challenged and undermined, and represent instances where the state legislature tries to take away the power of cities to make their own decision.
The city of Columbus is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to decide whether Ohio cities can create and enforce local gun laws. In particular, the city is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to decide that Columbus’ gun safety ordinances are constitutional. The city is arguing that it can appeal this matter now because denial from the state legislature infringes on home rule rights and threatens public safety.
The city of Columbus wants to enforce ordinances the City Council passed in 2022 that banned high-capacity magazines, criminalized unsecured guns around children, and prohibited selling guns to people who can’t legally possess them.
In January 2024, the Buckeye Institute challenged the city’s ordinances and a preliminary injunction was granted against them. Columbus appealed that decision. After Ohio’s Fifth District Court of Appeals dismissed the city’s request, the city of Columbus filed the case with the Ohio Supreme Court.
Despite Ohio being a “home rule” state, whereby cities and municipalities can pass laws on issues of public safety, this case is in court because the Ohio Revised Code has a preemption law that prevents municipalities from creating their own gun regulations.
The Ohio Supreme Court has twice upheld the preemption law when other cities challenged it.
Utility Rate Hikes
The Ohio Supreme Court determines if utility companies can raise their rates and by how much. For example, in 2016, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio allowed FirstEnergy to collect $460 million under a rate increase called a “rider” that was struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court three years later.
Several utility providers have been or are planning on raising customers’ rates. Ohio’s Consumer Counsel is likely to challenge these hikes.
Other Home Rule Cases
The Ohio Supreme Court might eventually review the constitutionality of city bans on plastic bags and flavored tobacco. The city of Columbus is drafting a lawsuit against Ohio for the new state law banning cities from regulating tobacco sales, stating the lawmakers are infringing on home rule.
For more information about conflicts between state and local laws, see Brennan Center for Justice’s What Happens When State and Local Laws Conflict.
The Future of Abortion Access
In 2023, Ohio voters approved Issue 1, a constitutional amendment that enshrines a right to abortion, contraception, miscarriage care, and fertility treatment in Article 1, Section 22 of Ohio’s Constitution. This constitutional amendment took effect December 7, 2023.
However, this amendment doesn’t trump any federal abortion regulations, nor does it automatically repeal existing laws in Ohio. Other existing laws restricting abortion access would have to be challenged in court or nullified by the legislature.
Ohio still has many abortion laws on the books that weren’t automatically nullified by Issue 1. Some, like the six-week abortion ban that was already put on hold by courts before the amendment passed, are currently being litigated.The Ohio Supreme Court has asked both sides of the case to submit briefs on Issue 1’s impact on the so-called “heartbeat ban,” which bans an abortion six weeks after conception. The outcome of this case will impact whether or not women in Ohio will have access to abortion as stipulated in the amendment that was approved by voters in November 2023.
The Future of Recreational Marijuana
In 2023, Ohioans also passed Issue 2, a statutory initiative that legalized the purchase and use of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older. This law also took effect on December 7, 2023.
Although the use of recreational marijuana is now legal in Ohio, legislators can change the new law whenever they choose. In December 2023, the Ohio Senate passed House Bill 86 which further regulated recreational marijuana. The Ohio House hasn’t acted on it.
There is no system in place for people to legally buy marijuana. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine stated that “it won’t be until the end of this year  when the sale of it will be authorized.”
Thus far, no action has been taken at the court level, but we expect the Ohio Supreme Court will eventually be asked to weigh in and determine the future of recreational marijuana use in the state.
The highest court has the final say on matters of public corruption and abuse of power. As such, it serves as a potential security guard for the people of Ohio. Sam Randazzo represents a prime example of when the Ohio Supreme gets involved in public corruption trials
In 2020, Sam Randazzo resigned as the chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) following a raid on his home by the FBI. In 2021, FirstEnergy agreed to pay a fine and admitted as part of the deferred prosecution agreement that company executives had paid Randazzo – the state’s top utility regulator – $4.3 million for favorable treatment. In November 2023, Randazzo was indicted for bribery and embezzlement.
Randzzo’s actions were part of the $60 million House Bill 6/nuclear bailout scheme coordinated by former Ohio Speaker Larry Householder. Randazzo, who has pleaded not guilty, is the sixth individual to be indicted.
In August 2021, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s request to freeze Randazzo’s $8 million in personal assets was granted by the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. Yost made the request out of concern that he was “spending down criminal proceeds” when he transferred a home worth $500,000 to his son and liquidated other properties worth a combined $4.8 million. Randazzo subsequently appealed and the 10th District Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision. On January 16, 2024, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the Tenth District Court of Appeals’ decision and reinstated a lower court’s order, allowing Sam Randazzo’s assets to be frozen once again.
The Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct is intended to establish standards for ethical conduct for judges and judicial candidates. A core principle set out in the very first canon is that judges and judicial candidates must be independent, impartial and avoid any appearance of impropriety. Public confidence that judges can be independent referees is essential. Failure to abide by these ethical standards means we lose trust in our courts’ rulings and in the stability of our government.
Canon 1 of the Code of Conduct:
“A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”
The Code of Judicial Conduct establishes guidelines for stepping away from cases in which “a judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Judges typically recuse themselves if a family member is involved in a case before them or if they have a financial interest in the case. The Code of Judicial Conduct means that justices of the Ohio Supreme Court get to determine for themselves if they are biased without any independent review.
The Code does not consider campaign contributions to judicial candidates sufficient to “disqualify” them. This means that judges can hear cases involving major donors, including those with a large aggregate of contributions from the same company (e.g., the company’s PAC, and multiple employees or board members).
CONTRIBUTION LIMITS in the Ohio Code of Conduct of Conduct
Effective for 2021 Election Cycle and Subsequent Election Cycles
|Supreme Court Chief Justice and Justice
|Court of Appeals
|Common Pleas, Municipal, and County Court more than 750,000
|750,000 or less
*Primary limits apply only if the judicial candidate has a contested primary. If there is no contested primary, the general election limits apply throughout the permissible fundraising period.
Allowing justices to sit on cases where the parties before them are major donors is controversial at best. It’s obvious that the referee shouldn’t be given money during the middle of the game, and that’s what campaign contributions to justices ruling in your case amounts to. A large majority of voters agree.
Some judges and justices agree. Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, former Republican member of the Ohio Supreme Court, was quoted as follows in The New York Times:
“I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station in any race I’ve ever been in as I did in a judicial race. Everyone interested in contributing has very specific interests.”Justice Paul E. Pfeifer