In November, there will be three contests for seats on the Ohio Supreme Court. Two races have incumbent justices running for re-election, while sitting Justice Yvette McGee Brown is running for her first full term after being appointed in 2010.

Background: The 2012 Ohio Supreme Court Elections

For the past several years, the philosophy of the Ohio Supreme Court has been one of judicial restraint. The business community worked hard to elect individuals who would bring this philosophy, along with a respect for precedent, to Ohio’s high court.

One of the stalwarts of the Court’s current philosophy is Justice Bob Cupp. Surprisingly, the most recent Columbus Dispatch poll shows Justice Cupp the incumbent trailing his opponent, William O’Neill, 27 percent to 16 percent, with 57 percent undecided. Before his election to the Court, Justcse Cupp chair of the Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee for several years.

The Dispatch polling in the other races shows the following:

Justice Terrence O’Donnell leads challenger state Senator Michael Skindel 32 percent to 11 percent.

Justice Yvette McGee Brown leads challenger Judge Sharon Kennedy 26 percent to 20 percent.

Each race is reviewed below.  

The Races

Robert R. Cupp vs. William M. O’Neill

Robert R. Cupp: Sitting Supreme Court Justice Cupp is running for his second term on the Court, having served since 2007. Prior to his election, Justice Cupp served on the Ohio Court of Appeals, Third Appellate District. His career spans 30 -years and includes stints as a Republican state senator, two terms as an Allen County commissioner, and four years as Lima city prosecutor and assistant law director. The Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA) has given Justice Cupp its “Highly Recommended” rating. Justice Cupp’s campaign had almost $386,000 on hand as of the last monthly reporting deadline.

A lifelong resident of Allen County, Justice Cupp received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Ohio Northern University and his law degree from ONU’s Pettit College of Law. His website is: www.cuppforjustice.com.

William M. O’Neill: Mr. O’Neill, a Geauga County Democrat, is a retired judge of the Eleventh District Court of Appeals in Warren, Ohio. Mr. O’Neill was formerly an assistant attorney general for the state of Ohio. The OSBA rated Mr. O’Neill as “Recommended” and he is currently ahead of Justice Cupp in a recent Columbus Dispatch poll.

Mr. O’Neill is making his third run for the Supreme Court, having also run twice for United States Congress unsuccessfully. Mr. O’Neill does not accept private donations to his campaign, which reported zero dollars on hand as of the last monthly reporting deadline.

Mr. O’Neill is a graduate of Ohio University and received his law degree from Cleveland Marshall College of Law. He also obtained a nursing degree from Huron School of Nursing and currently works as a pediatric nurse in Hillcrest Hospital near Cleveland. His website is: www.oneillforjustice.com.  

Terrence O’Donnell vs. Michael Skindell

Terrence O’Donnell: Justice O’Donnell is running for his third term on the Supreme Court. Justice O’Donnell first ran for the Court in 2003 and is a Rocky River Republican. Justice O’Donnell previously served on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas and the Eighth District Court of Appeals for a combined total of 22 years. He was in private practice before his time on the bench and was a school teacher prior to attending law school.

Justice O’Donnell graduated from Kent State University’s College of Arts and Sciences and from Cleveland State University. He earned his law degree from the University of Akron School of Law. He is “Recommended” by the OSBA and leads his opponent by 16 percentage points in the most recent Columbus Dispatch poll. Justice O’Donnell’s campaign filed its last campaign finance report with just over $382,000 on hand. Justice O’Donnell’s website is www.reelectjusticeodonnell.com.

Michael Skindell: The Ohio Democratic Party chose current State Senator Michael Skindell to replace Austintown attorney Bob Price on the November ballot after Mr. Price stepped out of the race in late June. Mr. Skindell previously served in the Ohio House of Representatives and on Lakewood City Council.

Mr. Skindell received his undergraduate degree from Walsh College and graduated from Cleveland Marshall School of Law. He has worked in private practice for 12 years and was previously an assistant attorney general. Mr. Skindell also served as a hearing officer for the Ohio Department of Health for 10 years. He is “Highly Recommended” by the OSBA. Mr. Skindell’s campaign reported $52,363on hand as of the last filing and his campaign website can be found at www.mikeskindell.com.

Yvette McGee Brown vs. Sharon L. Kennedy

Yvette McGee Brown: Justice McGee Brown was appointed by Governor Ted Strickland in 2011 to fill a vacancy on the Court. Justice McGee Brown ran as Governor Strickland’s running mate in 2010; they were defeated by Gov. Kasich and Lt. Gov. Taylor. Justice McGee Brown is the only Democrat currently on the High Court. She received a “Highly Recommended” rating from the OSBA.

Justice McGee Brown formerly served on the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in the domestic relations and juvenile division. She was the first African American woman to be elected to the Common Pleas Court in the county. Justice McGee Brown retired from the bench in 2002 to start the Center for Child and Family Advocacy, located at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She graduated from Ohio University with a degree in journalism and public relations and obtained her law degree from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Justice McGee Brown’s campaign had the highest amount of cash-on-hand as of the last filing, topping $649,000. Justice McGee Brown’s website is: wwww.justiceyvette.com.

Sharon L. Kennedy: Judge Kennedy is currently in her third term as a domestic relations judge in Butler County. A Republican, this is Judge Kennedy’s first run at the state Supreme Court. She formerly served as a police officer in Hamilton County, special counsel for then Attorney General Betty Montgomery, and as a part-time magistrate in Butler County.

Judge Kennedy was “Not Recommended” by the OSBA following her screening by the 25-member non-partisan panel. Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett labeled the process flawed and political and recommended that future Republican judicial candidates decline to be reviewed by the OSBA.

Judge Kennedy graduated from University of Cincinnati with an undergraduate degree in social work and continued at the University of Cincinnati College of Law for her law degree. Judge Kennedy’s campaign reported almost $460,000 in the bank as of the last reporting deadline. Her website is: www.kennedyforohio.com.

Opportunities to Participate

Contributions to Candidates

Canon 4 of the Code of Judicial Conduct establishes contribution limitations and campaign conduct for judicial candidates. Under Canon 4, Supreme Court candidates may receive individual contributions of $3,450 per election. PACs and other organizations1 can contribute $6,325 per election. Note that no corporate contributions are permitted to the candidates.

Contributions to Republican or Democratic State Party

Candidate Support: A political party may make contributions to its court candidates in cash or in-kind services through its judicial candidate fund. The party (including the national, state and county parties) may contribute up to $316,250 to each candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court.

Individuals and PACs may contribute up to $34,631.11 per calendar year to the party’s state candidate fund. Again, no corporate contributions directly to the candidates or state parties’ candidate funds are permitted.

Other Types of Party Support: State and county parties are required to establish a restricted fund that is separate from all other accounts. A state or county party must deposit all public moneys received from the Ohio political party fund into its restricted fund. Parties may also deposit other funds into this account, including certain gifts from corporations or labor unions. Corporations may contribute up to $10,000 per year to the Ohio parties’ restricted accounts. Restricted account money may only be used for defraying operating and maintenance costs associated with political party headquarters, including rental or leasing costs, staff salaries, office equipment and supplies, postage, and the purchase, lease or maintenance of computer hardware and software.

In Ohio, corporations may also make contributions to the statewide parties’ Levin accounts. Levin accounts are used for generic campaign activity, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts that do not constitute a contribution to a political candidate. Levin accounts cannot be used for any purpose that directly supports an individual candidate. Corporations may contribute up to $10,000 in any year in which federal candidates are on the ballot to the parties’ Levin accounts.

Contributions to Issue Advocacy and Independent Expenditure Efforts

According to a recent Ohio Elections Commission Advisory Opinion, corporations may now use general treasury dollars to independently participate in partisan political activities in Ohio. Independent corporate expenditures are permissible and no contribution limits apply. However, expenditures must be reported. As anexample, the Ohio Chamber of Commercecreated the Partnership for Ohio’s Future in 2006 to engage in independent expenditures during previous election cycles. The Partnership for Ohio’s Future, along with other non-affiliated groups, will be participating in the Supreme Court races again this year.

Conclusion

Ohio’s Supreme Court candidates often struggle to get their messages out in Presidential election years and 2012 seems to be no exception. With more than 50 percent of the population undecided in the Supreme Court races, it will be very difficult to predict what will happen on November 6.