ACLU of Ohio Defends State Supreme Court Justice's Free Speech Rights in Lawsuit Over Election Campaign

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
June 4, 2003 12:00 am

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CLEVELAND –The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio today filed legal papers defending Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor against ethical charges stemming from her 2002 judicial election campaign.

A motion in the case, State ex. rel. O’Connor v. Wolff, seeks to remove a judge who is pursuing the charges against Justice O’Connor, but who may be tainted by bias in the case. The charges allege that Justice O’Connor misrepresented herself as a judge in two television advertisements, in essence, creating a false or confusing picture for voters.

“These charges strike at the heart of Justice O’Connor’s right to free speech. In both of the ads in question, Justice O’Connor clearly identifies herself as a former judge,” said Raymond Vasvari, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio. “Our client is being investigated for having made truthful statements about her record during an election campaign. This is an attack on the sort of core political speech to which the First Amendment most clearly applies.”

ACLU attorneys pointed out that Ohio is one of only a handful of states that maintain such stringent rules on judicial campaign ads. Similar rules in Alabama, Georgia and Michigan have been struck down as unconstitutional.

The charges against Justice O’Connor were dismissed in February 2003. In March however, Ohio Court of Appeals Chief Justice William Wolff reopened the case. The ACLU said in legal papers that Chief Justice Wolff used an arcane set of rules that allow the Chief Appellate Justice to reopen certain cases.

“The problem with Chief Justice Wolff’s actions is that he was previously involved in the case,” said Benson Wolman, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Ohio. “Chief Justice Wolff sat earlier as a panel member in the first case, and we believe he voted to convict. In effect, he is taking a second bite at the apple.”

In legal papers filed today, the ACLU asked the Ohio Supreme Court to order Judge Wolff to step aside in the case. Because Justice O’Connor sits on the Court, she and her colleagues will themselves step aside in this case, and a special supreme court will be appointed to hear the motion.

“This need never have happened,” said Vasvari. “We asked Judge Wolff to step aside and he refused. The law is clear: a judge cannot in essence preside over the appeal of a case in which his vote is already a matter of record.”

The ACLU complaint is online at /node/34977

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