COLUMBUS, Ohio – Three Republican Ohio Supreme Court justices who are on the Nov. 8 ballot have questioned the ethics of the court’s involvement in a judicial election education project that will feature them and their challengers, among other voter information, on the court’s website.
In a May 4 memo to other members of the court, Justices Sharon Kennedy, who is running for Ohio chief justice, and Pat DeWine and Patrick Fischer, who are seeking re-election to their offices, questioned whether this information violates the ethical obligations of the court to be independent.
They’re concerned that the website could look like a branch of government is being deployed for a political advantage, they said.
They questioned how public resources were used in the education effort. They also criticized the project’s partnership with the Ohio League of Women Voters, one of the plaintiffs in the redistricting cases before the court. They said seemingly neutral questions could be interpreted as favoring certain candidates, such as a question about previous judicial experience could appear as if the court dislikes candidates who would be new to the bench.
The judicial election education project is called Judicial Votes Count. The Ohio Supreme Court’s website is hosting the information at jvc.ohio.gov.
The website features a flow chart of the hierarchy of courts in Ohio, the dates of the primary and general elections, videos explaining municipal, common pleas, juvenile, appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court.
Voters can use the website to find judicial races by county. Judges on the ballot can answer questionnaires with biographical information, which get populated on the website after they submit online forms, although it’s months before the General Election and few judges have uploaded information yet.
Yet, Kennedy, DeWine and Fischer wrote in the memo that the website gives the impression that all seven Ohio justices support the message and project in their official capacity as judges.
“Our concern is whether this court, comprised of justices who are literally on the ballot, is the proper entity to be promoting and providing that information to voters,” they wrote. “We think not.”
However, a good government advocate questioned whether the three judges are trying to raise ethical questions to get ahead of criticism they face over their own judicial ethics.
DeWine, the son of the governor, hasn’t recused himself from any of the redistricting cases, even though his father is a member of the Ohio Redistricting Commission. Thus far, the younger DeWine has sided with the Redistricting Commission in all the Supreme Court decisions.
Kennedy spoke at a Greater Toledo Right to Life event in 2017 when the city’s surgical abortion clinic had a case before the court. She didn’t recuse herself from the case, and sided against the clinic, which stopped surgical abortions for two months.
“One of the things that does happen sometimes, is when there are ethical questions it’s easy to start pointing your finger at others,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. “I’m not saying that’s actually happening here. But these three justices are concerned about a voter education site.”
Turcer generally is impressed with the Ohio Judicial Votes Count website, which was newly launched this election cycle. She said that voters often skip judicial races, due to lack of education about the candidates. Judicial Votes Count provides good information not just about upcoming judicial races, but about how the judiciary works overall, she said.
Turcer, whose organization is part of a speaker’s bureau in which people talk about the judiciary across the state to increase interest in the influential but often overlooked branch, doesn’t completely write off the Republican justices’ concerns. She looked at judicial voter guides in other states before an interview with cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer. She found that chief elections officials and local boards of election usually house the information.
“It is unusual to have the highest court be the repository for election guides,” she said. “That is unusual. And before this it was housed at the University of Akron.”
Judicial Votes Count began in 2015 as a project at the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, with a number of partners, including the Ohio Bar Association, Ohio League of Women Voters and print and television news organizations, said Lyn Tolan, the Ohio Supreme Court’s public information director, who supervises the court’s Office of Civic Education, which is managing Judicial Votes Count.
The court decided to host the site because it had the technology to automatically populate the judge questionnaires. It had the ability to quickly send out letters to certified judicial candidates. The Bliss Institute was entering much of the information manually, she said.
“I think where the misunderstanding comes in is when Justices DeWine, Fischer and Kennedy last ran, they sent their information in, and it had to be entered into the website manually,” Tolan said. “My understanding is that they used graduate students or political science students for that work. That’s all automated now. As of the first of the year, when we redid the website, candidates put the information into the questionnaire and then it automatically populates the website. The court resources that they were talking about, it just doesn’t work in that way anymore because of the technology.”
The Office of Civic Education already follows the judicial elections because once people get elected or appointed to the bench, they have to undergo several days of orientation. The office also organizes continuing education and other information for judges, Tolan said.
The workers in the Office of Civic Education who manage the website do not directly work on court cases, such as the redistricting case.
And the League of Women Voters’ worker who partners with the court also doesn’t work on any policy or court cases. The league is a founding member of Judicial Votes Count but doesn’t formulate any of the questions that end up on the questionnaires. It receives the questionnaires from the Supreme Court and post them to its own website, Vote411.org, said Jen Miller, the executive director of the league.