Choose Your Judges

Ohio Supreme Court candidates argue over “clean campaign pledge”

September 24th, 2020

In every judicial election, the Ohio State Bar Association (“OSBA”) asks candidates to sign a “clean campaign pledge,” which states, among other things, that candidates will not run ads that “lead voters to believe that a candidate will decide cases or issues in a predetermined manner.” On one level, this seems like a completely reasonable principle to commit to; after all, judicial candidates should not campaign by promising to rule a certain way in a certain case or in a certain kind of cases. Indeed, up until this election, over the past ten years only one judicial candidate has refused to sign the pledge.

This year, however, both Democratic candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court–appellate court judge Jennifer Brunner and common pleas court judge John P. O’Donnell–have refused to sign the pledge. They argue that their opponents–Republican incumbents Judith French and Sharon Kennedy–are avowed conservatives, and so will be more likely to issue conservative decisions in cases that come before them. Thus, the two Democratic challengers argue it is legitimate for them to point that fact out to voters and let voters decide whether they want judges with a conservative judicial philosophy to remain on the bench.

The OSBA is concerned that candidates who refuse to sign the pledge will engage in negative advertising, which violates judicial codes of conduct; the Democratic challengers argue that the official Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct already prohibits judicial candidates from “[engaging in] political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.” As of now, Judge Brunner’s campaign has stayed positive; her recent ads on twitter have highlighted her respect for the late Justice Ginsburg. Judge O’Donnell’s ads run with the theme of transforming the Supreme Court into a “People’s Court,” with implicit (and sometimes explicit) messages that he believes the current court is beholden to special interests and is not responsive to the needs of real people. But at least so far, the Ohio Supreme Court race has not turned ugly or been dominated by negative advertisements.

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