Ohio Bar Association Pressured Judge To Keep Quiet About Justice For Sale

Our guest blogger is Billy Corriher, associate director of research for Legal Progress.

Spending on television ads for this year’s state supreme court races reached a record high of nearly $28 million, according to Justice at Stake. The race for the Ohio Supreme Court was one of the most expensive, with candidates reporting more than $2 million in campaign contributions and undisclosed millions in independent spending. One candidate in that race, however, refused to accept campaign cash and ran on a platform of cleaning up the state’s judicial elections. Judge Bill O’Neill won a seat on the high court with the campaign slogan, “Money and Judges Don’t Mix.”

This message, which criticized incumbent justices for accepting campaign cash from parties and attorneys before the court, did not sit well with the Ohio State Bar Association. The bar association called on O’Neill to refrain from making “statements that impugn the court’s integrity and imply that justice is for sale.” The legal industry has traditionally been the largest source of campaign contributions for high court candidates.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, O’Neill responded, “I am not implying that justice is for sale. I am stating it as a matter of fact.” As an example, O’Neill points to campaign cash from power company First Energy, which recently contributed to two justices while it had a case before the court. “If that’s not an attempt to buy the court, I don’t know what is,” he said.

The Center for American Progress issued a report in August on corporate interest groups influencing the law through campaign contributions. The report found that the high courts which have seen the most campaign cash, including the Ohio Supreme Court, are more likely to favor corporate defendants over individual plaintiffs. A 2006 New York Times article studied the correlation between campaign donations and the Ohio Supreme Court’s rulings, and it found that the justices voted for their contributors in 70% of the cases studied.