Thursday, April 1, 2004

Top judge backs disclosure bill

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Ohio's top judge urged lawmakers on Wednesday to shed more light on special-interest groups that spend millions to influence the outcomes of Supreme Court elections.

In his first appearance before the legislature as Chief Justice, Thomas Moyer asked a panel of state senators to pass a bill that would make groups reveal their donors' identities if their campaign ads mention a Supreme Court candidate by name.

Moyer told lawmakers that special-interest groups have overshadowed past Supreme Court races with their own campaigns. Many of those ads have accused judges of being biased on legal issues.

"They take the candidate's message away and create their own," Moyer said. "When an advertisement suggests a certain judge will produce a certain decision, the message to the public is that judges are not expected to be impartial."

One estimate shows more than $12 million was spent on two Supreme Court seats in 2002, with much of the money being spent by outside groups.

The 2000 campaign between Justice Alice Robie Resnick and challenger Terrence O'Donnell gained national attention for its hard-hitting ads by special interest groups.

One ad from an Ohio Chamber of Commerce-backed group, Citizens for a Strong Ohio, accused Resnick of taking money from trial lawyers and labor unions in exchange for favorable rulings. Resnick won re-election despite the commercials.

A furor over that campaign remains. A Washington-based watchdog group, the Justice At Stake Campaign, calls Ohio a "poster child" for the national battle between special-interest groups that fight over Supreme Court races.

A soon-to-be-released analysis from Justice At Stake shows the average cost of winning an Ohio Supreme Court race exploded from $718,000 in 2000 to more than $1.8 million in 2002.

The Ohio bill, sponsored by Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, would make special-interest groups report all contributions over $500 if they mention a Supreme Court candidate by name in a radio or television ad.

Such groups now don't have to share their finances or names of backers, if the ads don't specifically call for the election or defeat of a candidate.

Chip McConville, a lobbyist for the Ohio Chamber and the director of Citizens for a Strong Ohio, said lawmakers need to be careful not to violate Ohioans' right to free speech.

"One of America's most deeply held freedoms is the ability for people to speak out about public officers," McConville said. "This legislation needs to be put together in a very careful way to be held constitutional."

Richard Mason, director of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, another group that ran its own Supreme Court ads, said he supports Gardner's bill.

He said campaigns by special-interest groups are important because there is so much at stake in Supreme Court cases.

"If you went through a list of major lobbying organizations in Ohio, every one would have some issue before the Supreme Court," he said.

Moyer and Keith Ashmus, president of the Ohio State Bar Association, argued that the new rules would not violate free political speech. Both mentioned a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld similar rules in federal election campaigns.

There are three contested races for the Ohio Supreme Court this year. Moyer, a Republican, is a candidate in one of those races. He faces Democrat C. Ellen Connally, a Cleveland Municipal Court judge.

While the bill appears to have strong early support in the Senate, it's not clear how it would fare in the House.

Orest Holubec, spokesman for Gov. Bob Taft, said the governor supports full disclosure of campaign donations.

Enquirer reporter Amy C. McCullough contributed to this report.

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