Tuesday, October 5, 2004
Ohio court race attracts big money
By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Wayne Pihl of Kenwood answered quickly: "Moyer, right?"
"Then there's a female, but I can't remember her name," the 65-year-old insurance salesman added, after he was asked on a recent afternoon to name any of the Ohio Supreme Court candidates.
Pihl is hardly alone in a public that generally pays little attention to court races, particularly in a year when presidential candidates make Ohio a second home and engage voters with topics such as the Iraq war, health care and the economy.
Meanwhile, those promoting court candidates toss around thick phrases such as "judicial activism" and discuss less-sexy subjects such as tort reform.
Riveting? Maybe not. Financially significant? You better believe it.
If money equates importance, then the Ohio Supreme Court races are the most vital elections in Ohio behind the president. While the public may not follow closely, special interests with deep pockets certainly do.
The Ohio State Bar Association estimates court candidates, state parties and independent groups will at least match the $13 million spent in 2002, which was tops in the nation.
Four seats are up for election in November, although Justice Paul Pfeifer is running unopposed.
A key force driving so much money into Ohio Supreme Court races is that Ohio's major economic players stand to gain or lose millions based on the court's decisions.
But that's true in all states, said Lawrence Baum, professor of political science at Ohio State University. What makes Ohio unique is how often the court rules 4-3 on major cases.
"The court is perceived as being closely divided on issues, so a single contest could change the court's majority," Baum said.
Although many observers think that the 2002 election flipped the court to a business-friendly 4-3 majority, one vote doesn't leave much wiggle room when three of seven seats are contested.
Corporations, insurance companies and the health-care industry are spending millions to back Republican candidates, while most labor unions and trial lawyers line up behind the Democrats.
The central issue: whether a jury should decide how much a plaintiff gets in a civil lawsuit or whether that amount should be capped. The series of laws are commonly known as tort reform.
In the past few decades, most recently in 1999, the Supreme Court has struck down jury caps as unconstitutional. As a result, the business community has complained of an unfriendly economic climate in Ohio, while the medical community is screaming that skyrocketing medical malpractice premiums are driving doctors out of Ohio.
Mary Yost, vice president of the Ohio Hospital Association, said her group will spend an "unprecedented" $1.5 million on the court races this year. That includes a Web site and get-out-the-vote drive for the 230,000 hospital employees in Ohio.
"The entire balance of the court is at stake," Yost said. "We won't have an opportunity like this to impact the court for at least another 10 years."
Gov. Bob Taft in January 2003 signed a law capping jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. For the law to effectively reduce or stabilize malpractice insurance rates, the health-care industry argues, the Supreme Court must uphold the law.
The state legislature is expected to pass a broader, business-backed tort reform bill later this year.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is again using its independent group, Citizens for a Strong Ohio, to back Republican court candidates.
So far, the group has raised more than $970,000, including $160,000 from Procter & Gamble.
"When you have a court where a majority of justices are judicial activists, and they see no problem with going beyond a strict interpretation of the law, there is a lot less predictability," said Linda Woggon, vice president of governmental affairs for the chamber.
But one person's judicial activist is another person's check-and-balance.
Unlike recent elections, the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers this year is not operating its own independent group, but rather is encouraging members to give directly to Democrat campaigns.
Richard Mason, executive director of the academy, questions whether a conservative court can defend individual constitutional rights from laws passed by a GOP-controlled legislature.
"It appears to us that business and medical people want the court to vote their way," he said.
"I think that means rubber-stamping legislation their lobbyists pushed through the legislature."
Supreme Court matchups
Endorsed by: Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio; National Federation of Independent Business; Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters; Ohio Chamber of Commerce; Ohio Civil Service Employees Association; Ohio Farm Bureau; Ohio Hospital Association; Ohio Manufacturers' Association; Troopers for a Safer Ohio.
Endorsed by: Ohio AFL-CIO; Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers; United Auto Workers; Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.
Endorsed by: AFL-CIO; Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers; Ohio Civil Service Employees Association; Ohio Education Association; Ohio Federation of Teachers; Troopers for a Safer Ohio; UAW Region 2.
Endorsed by: Ohio Chamber of Commerce; Teamsters Local 407; Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio; Ohio Manufacturers' Association; Ohio Farm Bureau; National Federation of Independent Business.
Endorsed by: National Federation of Independent Business; Ohio Manufacturers' Association; Teamsters Ohio; Ohio Hospital Association; Ohio Chamber of Commerce; Ohio Farm Bureau; Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio; Ohio Right to Life.
Endorsed by: AFL-CIO; Ohio Education Association; Ohio Federation of Teachers; Ohio State Troopers Association; Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers; Ohio United Food and Commercial Workers; Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.