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Bill advances to make top judicial races partisan

Published By Sandusky Register on June 16, 2021
D. J. Swearingen In The News

SANDUSKY — State Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, said he is “very optimistic” a proposal to list the partisan affiliation of candidates for top judicial posts will become law soon.

Last week, the House Government Oversight Committee approved Swearingen’s House Bill 149, which says political parties will be listed on the general election ballot for candidates running for the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio Court of Appeals.

An identical bill by state Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, was approved in the Senate 24-9 on April 21 and also now awaits House action.

Either Swearingen’s bill or Gavarone’s bill will have to be approved in both chambers to be signed into law, so for that reason, it’s likely the House will go ahead and pass Gavarone’s version, Swearingen said Tuesday.

Under current Ohio law, candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals run in Democratic or Republican primaries. But when candidates are listed on the general election ballot, the partisan affiliation is removed. Ohio is the only state that handles judicial elections that way.

Swearingen and Gavarone both argue that voters ought to be informed about the partisan affiliation of candidates for top judicial posts, rather than being kept in the dark.

“The current judicial electoral system in Ohio is flawed, mainly because we are the only state in the country where judges run in a partisan primary and a nonpartisan general election,” Gavarone said. “Voters deserve to have the full picture about candidates on the ballot, and this is just another piece of information they will have to make an informed decision.”

“Voters deserve transparency on their ballots and to know who has been funded and endorsed by political parties,” Swearingen said. “This bill will help the people of Ohio to be aware of the underlying judicial philosophies of the candidates.”

Voting on the two bills has been largely along party lines. Republicans have done well in recent elections in partisan statewide races, but Democrats have won recent nonpartisan races for the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Ohio Judicial Conference and Ohio State Bar Association came out against Swearingen’s and Gavarone’s bills.

The Ohio Judicial Conference represents Ohio’s 723 judges. Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference and a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, testified against House Bill 149 during a committee hearing.

“A fully partisan system is a move in the wrong direction,” Pfeifer told the lawmakers.

“I think all can agree that we do not want a partisan judiciary, or for our judges to act and make their decisions in a partisan manner, or even to create the appearance that judges are acting in a partisan manner. Simply put, though, that is what this bill will do,” Pfeifer said.

Judges are obligated to be neutral and base their decisions on the law and the facts, and House Bill 149 would “erode public confidence in our judicial system,” Pfeifer said.

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