Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is not shy about supporting Issue 1, the ballot measure that would raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 76, but does her video urging a “yes” vote – posted on the Ohio Supreme Court website – go too far?
State law prohibits local governments from using public funds to support or oppose the passage of a tax levy or bond issue but is silent on other measures. Also, the Supreme Court is immune from the restriction because the court was created by the state constitution, not a statute.
A court official said a “de minimis” amount of resources was used to make the video for the “public purpose of informing and educating” voters on Issue 1.
State Auditor Dave Yost issued the following statement: “Even if a close reading of the law gives judges special rights, the court should lead by example and remove the video that urges a yes vote.” Mr. Yost said he would review the issue as part of his regular look at state finances.
When the video was added to the court website in late September, it was accompanied by an official explanation of Issue 1 from the ballot board and arguments for and against it. Court staff members have added links to editorials and news stories on Issue 1.
The chief justice’s video in support is on the website, but so are editorials against Issue 1.
Philip Richter, executive director of the Ohio Elections Commission, said nothing in election law speaks to whether O’Connor’s video is proper. He said the state auditor can decide whether taxpayer money is being spent for a “proper public purpose.”
At a news conference on September 20, Mr. Yost introduced legislation that would subject public officials to jail time if they use tax dollars to support or oppose the election of a political candidate, the recall of a public official or the passage of a levy or bond issue.
Meanwhile, another taxpayer-funded body — the Ohio Judicial Conference — also has a brochure on its website advocating “yes” on Issue 1.
In a September 16 letter to the Judicial Conference, an attorney for the Ohio Supreme Court’s disciplinary arm said judges are free to express support or opposition for Issue 1.
Chief Justice O’Connor thinks the age limit is discriminatory and increasing it would make the judiciary stronger by encouraging qualified lawyers to serve on the bench.