Chances are, most Ohioans rarely think about the Ohio Supreme Court and even less believe 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, direct impact on Ohioans than the US’s nine-member Supreme Court in Washington.
And unlike the US Supreme Court, it is popularly elected, not nominated by the President and approved by the Senate.
Even so, you could walk down the busiest street in any Ohio city, large or small, and find very few people to give you the names of all seven Ohio Supreme Court justices.
“No one is ever going to make a movie about the Ohio Supreme Court,” said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, law professor at the University of Dayton and Democratic mayor of the suburb of Cincinnati, Wyoming. “We don’t talk about it much. But does it matter? It sure does. “
The daily life of Ohioans, Hoffmeister said, “is more influenced by what the Ohio Supreme Court does than anything the US Supreme Court does.”
If you’re reading this, there is a good chance you own a smartphone. You may be reading this on your smartphone right now.
And if you own a smartphone, some time ago – long before the US Supreme Court acted – you owe the Ohio Supreme Court a ruling that requires police to issue a search warrant before they can see what’s there on your phone.
Perhaps you used your personal vehicle for work today – or every day.
In 1999, a majority in the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a case called Scott-Pontzer v Liberty Mutual that workers and their families injured in their spare time and in their own cars could be banned from their employer’s auto insurance. In 2000, the balance of power in the court shifted from Democrats to Republicans, and in 2003 the Ohio Supreme Court overturned that 1999 ruling – much to the delight of Ohio companies.
These are pretty basic problems. And for the months and years to come, the Ohio Supreme Court is likely to consider questions from the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly on everything from abortion to running Ohio elections to teaching critical racial theory in Ohio schools. And many more.
There are currently four Republicans and three Democrats on the pitch. That number could be reversed after the November 2022 election, as Democratic judge Jennifer Brunner, who was elected to court only last year, is running to succeed Republican Supreme Judge Maureen O’Connor, who cannot run again due to age restrictions.
Judge R. Patrick DeWine, a Republican and eldest son of Governor Mike DeWine, is believed to be Brunner’s opponent. This means that he cannot be re-elected as a judge next year and his current seat will be wide open.
It gives the Ohio Democratic Party a chance to win a majority on the court.
But does it matter?
Hoffmeister said the party represents the judicial affairs, but it is not always the determining factor in how the court decides in hard cases.
“I don’t want to say that the Ohio Supreme Court is completely impartial because it isn’t,” Hoffmeister said. “But there are many cases where the court can view matters with a neutral eye.”
In July, the governor signed a bill that required both the Ohio Supreme Court and the state appeals courts to have party names on the ballot. It will come into force for the first time in November 2022.
Republicans in the Legislature generally supported the law. The Democrats were very vocal in their opposition, but in a Republican-dominated legislature, the Democrats lost.
The current system – with no party names – can cause confusion among voters.
Exhibit A came in 2012. Sharon L. Kennedy was a Republican and a judge at the Domestic Relations Court in heavily Republican Butler County.
Despite being completely unknown to voters outside of Butler County, Kennedy chose to run for an unexpired term in the Ohio Supreme Court.
In the end, she won that election, and political observers from both parties believed that the main factor behind her victory was that droves of democratic voters – particularly from northeastern Ohio – voted for her because they believed they were given a name like Kennedy has to be a Democrat.
Everyone knows all Kennedys are Democrats, right?
Not correct. And Kennedy has since been elected to full terms in the Ohio Supreme Court.
Hamilton County’s GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou, a former community and civil court judge, said he saw no problem with party names on the November vote for those courts.
“After all, candidates for the county appeals court and Ohio Supreme Court will run in partisan primaries in May,” Triantafilou said. “That’s the most important question I get from our Republican voters – who are our candidates for the Supreme Court? We should be able to put them on the ballot. “
Others argue that these have traditionally been bipartisan elections and that it is up to the political parties to tell their voters which candidates have their approval.
Hoffmeister fears that this will only exacerbate partisanship in an allegedly impartial court.
“It’s a really bad idea,” said Hoffmeister. “All it will do is increase partiality on the court and make it less likely that citizens will believe that they can be shaken fairly by that court.
“It only serves to reinforce people’s lack of confidence in government institutions,” he added.
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