What's at stake in Ohio's Supreme Court elections

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Justice Pat DeWine has refused to recuse himself from cases that directly involve his father, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.

Ohio's most consequential elections this fall may not be for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, or even the state's governorship, but in the races for three seats on the Ohio Supreme Court.

Two of the state's justices are running for reelection, and a third open-seat race will fill an impending vacancy left by Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, who cannot run for reelection under Ohio's age limitation law, which restricts judges from running for reelection after age 70.

The results of each race could drastically change the makeup of the seven-person court, of which Republicans hold a slim 4-3 majority. The partisan balance of the court after the Nov. 8 midterm elections will have a significant impact on Ohio residents, as the court is poised to determine the fate of abortion access and redistricting, among other important rulings.

Conservatives have had a slight majority on the court for years, although O'Connor has proved to be a moderate voice on the court and has sided with Democratic judges on some of the more pivotal rulings. That includes repeatedly joining the three Democratic judges in striking down gerrymandered congressional maps drawn by Republicans.

O'Connor's decision to reject the statehouse-drawn maps drew such ire among her own party that state GOP leaders had a serious discussion about impeaching the chief justice.

The race to fill O'Connor's seat is between two current state Supreme Court justices, Republican Sharon Kennedy and Democrat Jennifer Brunner. After November, there will be a subsequent special election to fill the victor's seat.

Kennedy has twice as much money as Brunner in her campaign war chest as of last month. But the Republican's campaign is already courting controversy because of comments she recently made about the redistricting case, calling the issue the "fight of our life" for Republicans and raising questions about her impartiality on the issue.

The two other justices running for reelection are both Republicans: Pat Fischer and Pat DeWine, the son of Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. The younger DeWine reportedly has more than twice as much campaign cash on hand as his Democratic opponent, state appellate judge Marilyn Zayas.

Since Pat DeWine was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2016, ethics experts have raised grave concerns over his refusal to recuse himself from cases that directly involve his father. This was most prominent in the redistricting case since Gov. DeWine sits on the seven-member redistricting commission that drew up the gerrymandered maps.

The Republican justice defended his decision not to recuse himself in that case, saying that neither he nor his father had any "personal interest" in the litigation.

"A decision by the Court one way or another will not provide any personal benefit to him. He is not a member of the Legislature and is, thus, personally unaffected by any particular district lines," Pat DeWine said. "I also note that to my knowledge the governor has not publicly expressed an interest in favor of a particular outcome in this case."

The maps at the center of the case got an "F" grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan redistricting reform group.

Despite the Republican justices' financial advantages in each race, the Democratic candidates have one tactical advantage not previously seen in a state Supreme Court election. This year, each candidate's party affiliation will be printed next to their name on the ballot.

In April of 2021, the Ohio Senate approved a bill to allow ballots to list the party affiliation of candidates in some judicial elections, including for the state Supreme Court. It's a change that some political analysts see as a potential advantage to the Democratic candidates.

That's especially true after the federal Supreme Court's recent abortion ruling that effectively strikes down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that enshrined Americans' constitutional right to an abortion. A majority of likely midterm voters in Ohio want to see abortion rights protected, a recent Suffolk University/Cincinnati Enquirer poll found.

Immediately after Roe was overturned on June 24, an Ohio law banning abortion after six weeks went into effect. Days later, attorneys representing the state's abortion providers sued to restore access. The state's Supreme Court will soon hear legal arguments in the case.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.