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 Maureen O’Connor, justices Jennifer Brunner, Pat DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Patrick F. Fischer, Sharon Kennedy, 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.
What are the terms of office?
Voters will elect three justices for the Ohio Supreme Court in November 2022, a chief justice and two associate justices. Chief Justice O’Connor isn’t eligible to run again because she is over the age of 70, the mandatory retirement age. Justices Brunner (D) and Kennedy (R) are both seeking to replace O’Connor as chief justice. For associate justice, incumbent Republican Pat DeWine is being challenged by Democratic Judge Marilyn Zayas; incumbent Republican Patrick F. Fischer is being challenged by Democratic Judge Terri Jamison.
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. 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 money and figure out who is trying to influence your vote, and why.
New in 2022: Party Labels for Ohio Supreme Court Candidates
For the first time in more than 100 years, party labels will accompany the names of Ohio Supreme Court candidates on the ballot. Conventional wisdom has been that Ohio’s unlabeled Supreme Court ballot benefited Republican candidates. But the GOP-run legislature, which recently added party labels to the Supreme Court and Ohio Court of Appeals ballots, evidently doesn’t believe that.
Read more about Senate Bill 80, the new law that added party labels to some but not all judicial races in Ohio.
- Senate Bill 80 is a cynical, dangerous push to politicize Ohio’s courts, Common Cause Ohio, April 27,2022
- Stop Dangerous Push to Politicize Ohio’s Courts, op-ed by Mia Lewis in the Toledo Blade, May 8, 2021
- Bill requiring party labels for Ohio judicial candidates clears legislature, Cleveland.com, June 25, 2022
- Governor Signs Bills Into Law, (includes SB 80) July 1, 2021
Even with the new ballot format, judicial candidates are still forbidden to say much of anything when they campaign, which means that who is behind the expected dark money ads will take in 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 including the one for the chief justice. We have the opportunity as Ohio voters to elect a majority of 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 is expected to hear cases on topics with the potential to re-shape Ohio’s politics and the lives of its residents. They include cases that will decide:
- Access to abortion
- Fair voting maps
- Judicial recusal
- Bail reform, and so much more.
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.
The Future of Abortion Access
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned nearly 50 years of legal precedent and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade. Going forward, abortion rights will be determined by the states.
In giving states ultimate jurisdiction over abortion, it makes this year’s state supreme court races vital to the future of reproductive rights. Ohio abortion providers have filed an Ohio Supreme Court lawsuit seeking to stop the enforcement of Senate Bill 23, Ohio’s so-called “heartbeat bill.” This measure forbids abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, at a time when a person may not even know they are pregnant—that is, it forestalls a person’s options. Before Ohio’s six-week ban took effect, abortion was legal in Ohio until 22 weeks into a pregnancy.
The lawsuit specifically argues the Ohio Constitution’s due process rights under the Due Course of Law Clause protects women’s reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity. The heartbeat law discriminates against women, in violation of the Equal Protection and Benefit Clause.
How these arguments, or other potential challenges, will fare with the Ohio Supreme Court is an open question as judicial candidates are officially not permitted to give their personal opinions on topics that may come before the court. Still, abortion access is expected to dominate this year’s court contests.
Future of Partisan Gerrymandering for Congressional and Legislative Districts
Complicating questions of who should control Ohio’s highest court is the retirement of Chief Justice O’Connor, a Republican. She repeatedly sided with all three of the Court’s Democrats in tossing out badly gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps. What some regarded as political courage, others viewed as grounds for impeachment. Today, Ohioans seeking seats in the U.S. House and the state legislature are running in districts that Ohio’s highest court has ruled to be unconstitutional. The Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly controls the map-making processes and repeatedly defied the court’s orders to produce constitutional maps. Challenges to today’s maps are likely to resurface next year when the new court is in place.
Debate Over When Justices Should Recuse Themselves
Recusal, or removing oneself as a judge over a particular proceeding because of one’s conflict of interest, is based on the premise that judges are charged with a duty of impartiality in administering justice.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine has repeatedly refused to remove himself from cases that involved his father, Mike DeWine, first when the older DeWine was Ohio Attorney General, and then when he became Ohio Governor.
First, when Mike DeWine was Attorney General, the Ohio Democratic Party tried and failed to force Justice DeWine to recuse himself from cases involving the Ohio Attorney General’s office. In anticipation of the criticism, Justice DeWine told the Columbus Dispatch that before he joined the high court he had “sought legal guidance from the Supreme Court’s in-house ethics expert, as well as another legal ethics expert, who is a respected former appeals court judge. I have followed that advice to the letter. The voters of Ohio knew my father was attorney general when they sent me to the Supreme Court.’’
Questions about recusal resurfaced again when Mike DeWine became governor, particularly over lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of legislative and congressional districts. The governor is a defendant in the cases since he sits on the seven-member Ohio Redistricting Commission that is responsible for drawing the once-per-decade voting maps. A bi-partisan court majority tossed out a series of maps, saying they did not meet the constitutional parameters approved by Ohio voters. In each case, Justice DeWine sided with his father and the other Republicans who had voted for the maps.
In an effort that was widely seen as trying to distract from Justice DeWine’s refusal to recuse, Republicans called for Justice Brunner to recuse herself from the redistricting cases. Among the issues they cited was an October 2020 fundraiser at which Eric Holder was the special guest. Holder chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and one of its affiliates is involved in the Ohio litigation.
Debate Over Bail Reform and Public Safety
In 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that “the sole purpose of bail is to ensure an accused person’s attendance in court,” saying “public safety is not a consideration with respect to the financial conditions of bail.” The 4-3 decision ignited a fierce debate between those who insist the ruling bans judges from considering public safety when setting bail and those who contend existing law allows judges to balance the rights of the accused with the safety of citizens.
Justice Pat DeWine, running for re-election, has argued that the court ruling undermines public safety. Justice Jennifer Brunner, seeking the job of chief justice, believes the court majority properly balanced the public’s safety and the accused’s rights. The dispute prompted those who opposed the high court’s ruling to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would make it easier to keep people behind bars before trial. You can read the proposed amendment and arguments for and against it here.
The outcomes of the ballot issue, and the court contests, likely will determine if bail reform resurfaces as a matter before the court.
Extending Prison Sentences Without Court Approval
In a 4-3 ruling the Supreme Court struck a potential blow to a 2019 law that allowed the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to extend the prison sentences of inmates without asking the court’s permission. The 2022 State v. Maddox ruling reversed 21 decisions by Ohio appeals courts. In Maddox, the Court ruled that Ohio defendants in criminal cases can immediately challenge a section of the Tokes law that allows correctional authorities to extend a prison sentence, even when it may be years before the state can do so.
The Tokes law is named for Reagan Tokes, a 21-year-old Ohio State University student who was raped and murdered in 2017 by a man on parole for a rape conviction. In response, state legislators passed a law to give the prison department discretion to extend sentences.
Because lower courts considering the constitutionality of the Reagan Tokes law have reached conflicting decisions, this is a matter that ultimately will be resolved by the Supreme Court.
Damage Caps for Sexual Assault Survivors
On March 30, 2022, the Supreme Court of Ohio heard oral arguments in Brandt v. Pompa, a case on appeal regarding whether to continue upholding a 2004 law that limits non-economic damages that injured Ohioans can obtain from wrongdoers. Except for certain limited circumstances, Ohio law limits, or caps, the maximum amount a person can recover for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering.
Specifically at issue is whether Ohio law R.C. 2315.18(B) is unconstitutional as applied to damage awards to a minor victim of sexual assault. The appellant, a Delaware County female who was sexually assaulted by a pastor when she was age 15, is appealing a 2016 ruling in which the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the limitation of damages in involving the sexual assault of a minor. Citing Ohio’s damage caps, the ruling in that case reduced her jury award from $3.6 million to $500,000.
If the court rules that caps for sexual assault survivors are unconstitutional, it could open the door to efforts to strike down other parts of the law or overturn it entirely.
Consumer Bailouts for Utility Companies
Eventually, Ohio’s Supreme Court might review the constitutionality of House Bill 6, enacted to force electricity consumers to bail out the Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear plants once owned by FirstEnergy Corp., and to stick Ohioans with the cost of subsidizing two coal-fired power plants – including one in Indiana.
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
|CANDIDATE FOR:||INDIVIDUAL||ORGANIZATION||POLITICAL PARTY|
|Supreme Court Chief Justice and Justice||$4,100||$4,100||$7,500||$7,500||$203,900||$373,900|
|Court of Appeals||$1,400||$1,400||$4,100||$4,100||$40,800||$81,700|
|Common Pleas, Municipal, and County Court more than 750,000||$650||$650||$4,100||$4,100||$40,800||$81,700|
|750,000 or less||$650||$650||$4,100||$4,100||$34,000||$67,900|
*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