Fair, Unbiased Judiciary Critical to Ohio’s Economic Health

The Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice (OACJ) has a long history of supporting judges who understand their role is to interpret laws rather than legislate from the bench and impose their own ideas of what the public policy of the state should be. That is why OACJ endorses Judge Pat Fischer, Judge Pat DeWine, and Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor for the Ohio Supreme Court, and encourages Ohioans to vote for them on November 8.

Nearly 15 years ago, the American Bar Association (ABA) recognized an increasing threat to the judicial systems of the United States. A 2003 report identified a number of trends that were contributing to the excessive politicization of state courts – among them a glut of controversial cases, the emergence of single-issue groups, and a skeptical and conflicted public.

The report identified eight enduring principles paramount to an effective judicial system. At the top of that list: judges should uphold the law, judges should be independent, and judges should be impartial. It said, “An independent judiciary guarantees every citizen access to a branch of government designed to protect the rights and liberties afforded by federal and state constitutions and to resolve disputes peacefully and impartially. Fundamental to this unique role of the courts is the necessity for the judiciary to be distinct from the other two branches of government.”

This idea was echoed by the late long-time Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, referencing “the harm effected upon our jurisprudence when the judiciary does not follow the principle that courts are ill-suited and not designed to substitute their policy judgement for that clearly stated by the legislature.” This is why the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice has long supported judicial candidates who exercise judicial restraint – placing great weight on legal precedent and deference to legislative statutes and the Constitution – rather than those who destabilize Ohio’s judicial environment, legislating from the bench through judicial activism.

In recent years, the Ohio Supreme Court has been relatively balanced in its decision-making, however the Court is no stranger to judicial activism. Not so long ago, the court was dominated by a pro-plaintiff majority with a penchant for creating new public policy with its decisions rather than interpreting existing law. While not the only one, there is perhaps no better example of the Court’s activism than the infamous 1999 decision in the Scott-Pontzer case.

The activist majority’s decision, as one journalist put it, relied on “tortured logic” and “opened a $1.5 billion can of worms,” by allowing individuals injured in automobile accidents by uninsured or underinsured motorists to seek damages under their employer’s policies – even if they were not in an employer-owned vehicle or on company time – and allowing claims as far back as 15 years to be re-opened. The decision drove an increase in premiums, created an onerous climate for Ohio businesses, and clogged the courts with new or re-opened cases. Even plaintiff attorneys acknowledged the court’s decision could never have been the intention of commercial insurance policies. The case was used time and again as an example of, as the same journalist said, “how not to do it.”

It comes as little surprise that the campaign funds of this activist majority were heavily funded by personal injury trial lawyers. This pattern of activism ultimately served as a catalyst for restoring reason and balance to the Ohio Supreme Court. In 2002, now-Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor successfully ran to replace the retiring Andrew Douglas on a platform of restoring common sense and judicial restraint to the Court.

Since then, the philosophical position of the Ohio Supreme Court has been more objective and reasoned. Ohio’s judicial environment has been rated as stable and predictable, but this is not a guarantee going forward.

Over the course of the next two years, Ohio will elect four new Justices. Those who comprise the working majority on the Court will change, and that majority’s philosophical position could very well change. It won’t take much to tip the scales back to an activist court, the likes of which produced the Scott-Pontzer decision.

A pro-business judicial environment is important in maintaining a positive economy for our state. Just as important is maintaining a separation of powers in our state government—electing Supreme Court justices who recognize their role in interpreting laws only and leaving the creation of laws to the Ohio General Assembly. In other words, conservative justices who view their roles as evaluators of whether any law or lower court ruling is in line with the constitution; not liberal justices who look to change the meanings of existing laws, to be policy makers.

On the principles that they are the candidates most likely to promote a healthy economic climate for Ohio, stop frivolous lawsuits against businesses and professionals, and judiciously interpret the law rather than make new laws, the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice endorses Maureen O’Connor, Pat Fischer, and Pat DeWine for the Ohio Supreme Court, and encourages Ohioans to vote for them on November 8.