Ohio Supreme Court wants to clarify rules after Bill O’Neill candidacy

Image: Toledo Blade


The Ohio Supreme Court is considering a rule change after former Justice William O’Neill campaigned for governor from the bench.

O’Neill, a Democrat whose age made him ineligible for re-election to the court, announced Oct. 29 he was running for governor.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and other state officials said O’Neill was violating Ohio’s Code of Judicial Conduct rule against judges seeking partisan office.

That rule says, “Upon becoming a candidate in a primary or general election for a nonjudicial elective office, a judge shall resign from judicial office.”

O’Neill said he was not yet a candidate because he had not officially filed to run with the Ohio secretary of state’s office. The deadline was Feb. 7.

He announced in December that he would resign Jan. 26, after finishing opinions on several cases. O’Neill was the sole Democrat on the seven-member court.

O’Connor, in a November letter to her colleagues on the court, said she disagreed with O’Neill’s interpretation and suggested revisiting the rules in the future.

The proposed rule change would define a candidate as “a person who has made a public announcement of candidacy for non-judicial elective office and has taken or engaged in any public action in furtherance of that candidacy, declared or filed as a candidate for non-judicial elective office with the election authority, or authorized the solicitation or receipt of contributions or support for non-judicial elective office, whichever occurred first.”

O’Neill said Wednesday it’s good that the court provides guidance on the issue but the proposed rule goes too far. O’Neill said prohibiting a public announcement and action to further a candidacy would violate a judge’s First Amendment right to free speech. O’Neill said he did not accept campaign contributions nor collect signatures to file his candidacy until after he resigned.

“That’s the ‘O’Neill rule’ that makes sense for all judges in Ohio” O’Neill said. “Everything beyond what I have done is constitutionally prohibited by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The court will accept public comments on the rule until April 25.

The Ohio Senate voted in January to call O’Neill to the Statehouse to explain his actions, the first step in a constitutional process to remove a sitting justice. O’Neill resigned the following week.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich appointed Youngstown-area judge Mary DeGenaro, a Republican who was already seeking the seat to be vacated by O’Neill, to the bench.

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