Center for America

News Releases About Legal Reform

February 1, 2006

 

(Courtesy of The Daily Reporter)

 

Some fear reforms could backfire

Moyer testifies in support of Ohio's judicial reform bill

 

by ELIZABETH BROWN

Daily Reporter Staff Writer

 

 

Jeff Longstreth
Executive Director
Ohio Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse
 614.224.1435
 

February 1, 2006, Columbus, Ohio - Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer this week testified before the Ohio House Judiciary Committee, supporting the judicial reform measures proposed in House Bill 266, a bill that would increase judicial term lengths and up the requirements for becoming an Ohio judge.

 

Moyer said Wednesday the reforms proposed in the bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, would "strengthen the trust that citizens have for our system of government."

 

Many citizens worry that, under the current system, judges may be too accountable to political parties or campaign contributors, said Moyer.

 

According to a 2004 survey conducted by Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan campaign working to keep courts fair and impartial, nearly 71 percent of Americans "believe that campaign contributions from interest groups have at least some influence on judges' decisions in the courtroom."

 

Moyer asked legislators, "How can we expect citizens to believe otherwise when more than $7 million was raised by candidates in three of the Supreme Court races in 2004?"

 

One of the chief justice's solutions to the campaign contribution problem is to increase judicial term lengths.

 

"Longer terms would achieve the appropriate balance between independence and accountability, reduce the frequency of fund raising and increase the number of qualified potential candidates," he said.

 

Currently, judges in Ohio, regardless of which court they serve, have a six-year term. The bill proposes lengthening judicial terms to eight years for common pleas court judges, 10 years for appellate court judges and 12 years for Supreme Court justices.

 

Lengthening terms would further separate judges from the partisan political process and help create a court system "that is accountable to the law and the Constitution, not political pressure," Moyer said.

 

But as much as Moyer believes lengthening judicial terms would improve the judicial system, others fear it would have the exact opposite result.

 

"While we are certainly in favor of making the court more transparent, meaning it's nice to be able to follow the money that goes into campaigns, I can't say that we support lengthening the term for justices," said Jeff Longstreth, executive director of Ohio Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

 

"If the justices are truly to be held accountable, then I think the term of six years is more than adequate," he said.

 

"Courts are no different than any other political office, in my mind. If we were talking about lengthening the term for a governor, obviously I think there would be a lot of people that had a problem with that.

 

"If someone's doing a good enough job to be re-elected, then they can get re-elected," Longstreth added.

 

"Six years is more than enough, and makes sure (judges are) accountable to the public, because if a judge starts (acting inappropriately), the public should have the opportunity to replace them."

 

Seitz said he is aware that the increased term-length portion of the bill is going to be a tough sell.

 

"The major criticism that I think we're going to be in for is that some people in the legislature do not feel comfortable extending the lengths of the terms of the judges," said Seitz.

 

"In a term-limited legislature, I'm sure some of them are going to sit there and say, 'Oh, this is a bum deal; why should we give the judges eight-, 10- and 12-year terms when we only get two or four year terms?'

 

"But if you want to take some of the money out of running for judge, and you want the judge to be focused more on adjudicating cases instead of focusing on re-election, one way to do that is to give them a longer term in office," Seitz said.

 

In support of the changes, Moyer told legislators that lengthening terms also could help draw a larger pool of judicial candidates.

 

"During my years on the court, a number of intelligent, motivated attorneys have told me that they would run for judge if they knew their time in office would be longer than six years," said Moyer.

 

He added that "many of the best and the brightest are reluctant to give-up a well-established private practice" for a six-year term.

 

"To many, it's simply not worth it," he said.

 

Longstreth remarked that he felt this argument was "terrible."

 

"If someone wants to serve the public, they're going to serve the public. 'To many its simply not worth it?' Well, then don't do it. If it's not worth it to serve the public in the role of judge - well, then don't do it."

 

Longstreth added that he does support other reform measures in HB 266, such as increasing the requirements for judicial candidates.

 

Currently, any attorney who has been practicing law in Ohio for six years is eligible to become a judge. The bill would impose new training requirements for judicial candidates, and would require lawyers to have practiced for a minimum of 10 years before becoming a judge in a common pleas court, 12 years for a court of appeals and 15 years for the Supreme Court of Ohio.

 

Seitz has proposed to add two amendments to the bill, both supported by Moyer.

 

The first would establish a Judicial Allotment Commission to study the allotment of judges in each county every 10 years based on the U.S. Census and submit its recommendations to the General Assembly.

 

The second would re-direct $4 from the court fees of each case (which currently goes to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund) and allocate this money for two purposes: establishing a fund to assist local communities in providing court security and establishing and maintaining the Ohio Courts Network, a long-term project that would digitally connect all courts in Ohio.

 

Moyer assured the committee that taking a portion of the fee from the Crime Victims Fund would not threaten the fund's solvency, as the fund has carried a surplus of $25 million to $42 million over the past five years.

 

Moyer said the programs would "greatly enhance our ability to monitor case statistics (and), for the first time, give all courts access to a defendant's criminal record and court-ordered supervision."

 

He added that by linking all courts, "we also would provide timely access to court filings such as protection orders. Currently, there is no guarantee that the court in another county would know that a protection order has been filed against a particular person. This system would fill a void by sharing critical information."

 

Longstreth said his group also supports the amendments.

 

"Seitz continues to show his ability to see problems before they exist. Linking the courts and providing more security is really ahead of the curve for a politician to do. I can't support his amendments enough," he added.

 

Seitz developed HB 266 as part of a task force convened by Moyer in 2003.

 

"There were legislators, judges, business, labor on this large task force, and the bill reflects what the task force could agree to as being wise and prudent improvements to the system of our judiciary," Seitz said.

 

Sen. Timothy Grendell, R-Chesterland, has introduced a companion bill in the Ohio Senate.

 

 

Jeff Longstreth

Jeff Longstreth

Executive Director

Ohio Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

614-224-1435

www.ohiocala.org

 

Interested in legal reform in Ohio? Click here.

 

 

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