Sunday, June 25, 2000

Business, GOP work to boot Resnick

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — Republican Party leaders and advocacy groups will spend millions of dollars this year to make Alice Robie Resnick a household name.

        And they hope voters respond by showing her the door.

Alice Robie Resnick
        Ms. Resnick, 60, is a Toledo Democrat who in her 12 years on the Ohio Supreme Court has so infuriated Republicans and their business allies with her decisions that they will mount an unprecedented campaign to knock her off the bench.

        Business interests already are funneling money into a group called Citizens for a Strong Ohio, which will air “issue advocacy” ads. These ads can't legally urge a vote against Ms. Resnick but will make it clear she is not worth keeping around.

        “People are simply not aware of the immense impact this court is having on the state of Ohio,” Andrew Doehrel, president of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, said. “What you have to do is educate and educate and educate.”

        Ms. Resnick's supporters say they may mount a similar campaign to defeat her opponent, Terrence O'Donnell, a Republican Cuyahoga County appeals court judge.

    Alice Robie Resnick
    Age: 60
    Party: Democrat
    Home: Toledo
    Judicial career: Ohio Supreme Court justice since 1988; 6th District Ohio Court of Appeals, 1983-89; Toledo Municipal Court, 1976-83; assistant Lucas County prosecutor, 1964-75.

    Terrence O'Donnell
    Age: 54
    Party: Republican
    Home: Rocky River
    Judicial career: 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals since 1995; Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, 1980-95.
        Supreme Court races are not supposed to be like this. They typically are dull contests in which two judges argue about who is more fair-minded.

        A code of ethics forbids campaigning judges from saying anything that hints at how they would decide cases. The code also limits judges' general election campaign spending at $550,000 each, relatively little in a statewide race.

Voters lack interest
        A lack of interest is evident in turnout. Ohioans cast 4.5 million ballots in 1996 for U.S. president. Only 3.4 million voted in Ohio's Supreme Court races that year.

        What makes this race different?

        Republicans and business groups believe if they can oust Justice Resnick, they can break a 4-3 high court majority that has handed them several stinging defeats. Democrats and labor leaders who won victories thanks to Justice Resnick are just as anxious to keep her on the bench.

        Columbus and Toledo voters got an early taste for the campaign in November, when a Washington-based business group called Americans for Job Security ran radio ads against Justice Resnick.

        “I thought Ohio was on the leading edge of reining in outrageous lawsuits,” a female announcer said during the ad.

        “We were,” replied a male announcer, “that is, until Alice Resnick fixed it for the trial lawyers and overturned real reforms proposed by the governor and the legislature.”

        The ad refers to a Resnick-written decision voiding a law that put a $500,000 cap on damages for certain jury awards. Her decision also overturned a law creating a 15-year limit on the filing of most lawsuits and a six-year limit on medical malpractice suits.

        Because the ads did not promote a candidate, the business group did not have to reveal who finances them. And while state law limits donations to candidates, there are no limits on issue-advocacy donations.

        That may be why the Ohio Chamber of Commerce formed its own group in July that may play a big part in this race.

    Justice Alice Robie Resnick has been involved in some of the Ohio Supreme Court's most controversial opinions affecting school funding, workers compensation and lawsuit reforms. Here is a look at three cases, each decided by a 4-3 majority.

School funding: DeRolph vs. State of Ohio
Date: May 11, 2000
Decision: In this ruling, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the state's school funding system, while improved, remains unconstitutional because it relies too heavily on property taxes. The state was given a year to fix the system so that it provides a “thorough and efficient education for every child.”

Lawsuit reform: Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers vs. Sheward
Date: August 16, 1999
Decision: The Ohio Supreme Court voided a law that put limits on jury awards in personal injury and product liability lawsuits, because it violated the Constitutional separation of powers between the General Assembly and the state court system. The law capped non-economic damages at $500,000 and placed similar limits on other types a jury awards. It also put a 15-year time limit on the filing of most lawsuits and a six-year limit on medical malpractice suits.

Workers' compensation: Johnson vs. B.P. Chemicals
Date: April 14, 1999
Decision: The high court threw out a state law that required injured workers to show their employers deliberately and intentionally injured them before they could win an injury lawsuit. The court ruled the standard was unreasonably high. Unions and trial lawyers say the decision protects workers. Business groups say employers ought not to pay lawsuit damages for an on-the-job injury because employees can claim workers' compensation benefits.

        Citizens for a Strong Ohio has no official ties to the chamber, but its vice president, Chip McConville, is the Chamber's political director. The group's office is next door to the Ohio Chamber's Columbus headquarters.

        Mr. McConville would not say how much money Citizens wants to raise. Mr. Doehrel said his group donated $200,000 and has asked other interests to pitch in.

        “If it can raise a dollar, it will spend a dollar,” Mr. Doehrel said. “If it raises $100 million, it will spend $100 million.

        Roger Geiger, director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses of Ohio, said his group donated and may do so again. He wouldn't say how much.

Supporters may fight back
        On April 20, the Ohio Contractors Association sent its members a letter urging them to give to Citizens. The letter says the court repeatedly overturns laws important to Ohio businesses.

        “Each time the court overturns one of these economic laws, the business community pays the price in the form of higher insurance rates, increased lawsuits, higher prices and less economic opportunity,” the letter states.

        Though he condemns the Ohio Chamber's efforts, Richard Mason, director of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, said Justice Resnick supporters may set up their own soft-money group to fight back.

        “It's a strong possibility.”

        Voters, said Mr. Mason, need to know that Justice Resnick's rulings protect injured workers and consumers. He said his group has to spread that message.

        “There is no group called "People who are going to be hurt someday,'” Mr. Mason said.

        Kent Darr, spokesman for the Ohio AFL-CIO, also would not rule out a soft-money defense of Justice Resnick.

        “This could be the ugliest Supreme Court election Ohio has seen,” Mr. Darr said. “We certainly won't be shy about telling people Justice Resnick should be re-elected.”

        As business groups fight the trial lawyers and the unions, party leaders will wage their own campaign. Democrats and Republicans will try to motivate party-faithful voters using the high court's school funding edicts.

        Justice Resnick wrote the 1997 and 2000 decisions that ordered the state to reform the way it funds public schools. The most recent ruling said the state had improved, but schools rely too much on property taxes.

        Bob Bennett, the Ohio Republican Party Chairman, says Justice Resnick practically ordered the General Assembly to raise taxes for schools. He calls that an abuse of power.

        “The Ohio Supreme Court is supposed to interpret state law, not make it,” Mr. Bennett said. “I think there is a general feeling in this state Justice Resnick is an activist justice.”

        That's what voters want in a judge, said David Leland, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman. He called Judge O'Donnell “a tool of corporate interests.”

        “Justice Resnick is one person who is willing to stand up for the rights of working people and schoolchildren,” Mr. Leland said.

Justices' spending limited
        How much both parties will spend is not clear. Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, said he is urging party backers to give to Mr. O'Donnell's campaign.

        Because the justices are limited in how much they can spend, he said outside parties have to pick up the slack.

        “Issue advocacy is going to be very important in this race,” Mr. Finan said. “We spend $550,000 in one Ohio Senate race. That's not even a good week's worth of television (ads).”

        Meanwhile, the candidates wonder if anyone will hear what they have to say.

        “I don't have any hidden agendas,” Mr. O'Donnell said. “However, I can relate to folks that I am not a judicial activist.”

        Justice Resnick said voters should choose her because of her experience and because she's fair.

        Both candidates are worried that outsiders have hijacked the race from them.

        “I don't want anything I'm saying to be confused with what anyone else is saying,” Judge O'Donnell said. “I'm going to run the best campaign I can and hope that my message gets out.”

        Justice Resnick is more explicit.

        “My opponent is insignificant,” Justice Resnick said. “It's the special-interest groups I'm running against.”


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