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Why You Should Care About What Happens Within The Ohio Supreme Court

[Wikimedia Commons]
Exterior of the Ohio Supreme Court building in Columbus, Ohio.

Chances are, most Ohioans rarely think about the Ohio Supreme Court and even fewer believe that it has a real impact on their daily lives.

The truth is that the seven-member state supreme court in Columbus has at least as much - if not more - immediate impact on Ohioans than does the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

And, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, it is elected by the people, not nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Nonetheless, you could walk down the busiest street in any city in Ohio, big or small, and find very few people who could tell you the names of all seven Ohio Supreme Court justices.

"Nobody is ever going to make a movie about the Ohio Supreme Court,'' said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor at the University of Dayton and Democratic mayor of the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming. "We don't talk about it a lot. But does it matter? It surely does."

Ohioans' daily lives, Hoffmeister said, "are more impacted by what the Ohio Supreme Court does than just about anything the U.S. Supreme Court does."

If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you may own a smartphone. In fact, you may be reading this on your smartphone right now.

And, if you have a smartphone, you have the Ohio Supreme Court to thank for a ruling some time ago – long before the U.S. Supreme Court acted – that requires the police have a court-issued warrant before they can get into your phone to see what is there.

You may also have used your personal vehicle on the job today – or every day, for that matter.

In 1999, a majority of the Ohio Supreme Court decided in a case called Scott-Pontzer v. Liberty Mutual that employees and their families injured on their own time and in their own cars were able to collect from their employers' auto insurance. In 2000, the balance of power on the court shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans and, by 2003, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed that 1999 decision – much to the delight of Ohio businesses.

These are pretty basic issues. And in the months and years to come, the Ohio Supreme Court is likely to end up examining issues coming out of the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly on everything from abortion to how Ohio's elections are conducted to the teaching of critical race theory in Ohio schools. And many more.

There are currently four Republicans and three Democrats on the court. That number could flip-flop after the November 2022 election, as Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner, just elected to the court last year, is running to replace Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, who cannot run again due to age restrictions.

Justice R. Patrick DeWine, a Republican and eldest son of Gov. Mike DeWine, is likely to be Brunner's opponent. That means he can't run for re-election as a justice next year and his current seat will be wide open.

It gives the Ohio Democratic Party the opportunity to win a majority on the court.

But does it matter?

Hoffmeister said the partisan make up of the court matters, but it is not always the determining factor on how the court decides hard cases.

"I don't want to say that the Ohio Supreme Court is completely non-partisan, because it is not,'' Hoffmeister said. "But there are many cases in which the court can look at issues with a neutral eye."

In July, the governor signed into law a bill that will require party designations on the ballot for both the Ohio Supreme Court and the state's district appeals courts. It will take effect for the first time in November 2022.

Republicans in the legislature generally supported the bill. Democrats were very vocal in their opposition, but in a legislature dominated by Republicans, the Democrats were bound to lose.

The present system – with no party designations – can cause some voter confusion.

Exhibit A came in 2012. Sharon L. Kennedy was a Republican and a domestic relations court judge in heavily Republican Butler County.

Despite being completely unknown to voters outside Butler County, Kennedy decided to run for an unexpired term on the Ohio Supreme Court.

She ended up winning that election and political observers from both parties were convinced that the main factor in her winning was that droves of Democratic voters – particularly from northeast Ohio – voted for her because they believed that with a name like Kennedy, she had to be a Democrat.

Everybody knows all Kennedys are Democrats, right?

Wrong. And Kennedy has been elected to full terms on Ohio's top court since then.

Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou, former municipal and common pleas court judge, said he sees no problem with party designations on the November ballot for those courts.

"After all, the candidates for district court of appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court run in partisan primaries in May,'' Triantafilou said. "That's the number one question I get from our Republican voters – who are our candidates for the Supreme Court? We should be able to tell them on the ballot."

Others argue that these are traditionally non-partisan elections and that it is up to the political parties to get the message out to their voters about which candidates have their endorsement.

Hoffmeister is concerned that all this will do is ratchet up the partisanship on a court that is supposed to be non-partisan.

"It's a really bad idea,'' Hoffmeister said. "All it is going to do is increase the partisanship on the court and make it less likely for citizens to believe that they can get a fair shake from this court.

"It serves only to increase people's lack of faith in government institutions," he added.

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