Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Ohio Supreme Court: GOP's justices appear to be buttressing majority

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Republicans, who vastly outraised Democrats in campaign funds, appeared ready to solidify their year-old voting majority on the Ohio Supreme Court, leading comfortably in the three contested races with 70 percent of the state's precincts reporting.

Voters decided Tuesday whether to keep Republican Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and GOP appointee Terrence O'Donnell, and how to replace a retiring Democrat.

The departure of Francis Sweeney, 70, who must leave because of age limits, created the only open seat in the election. Republican Judith Ann Lanzinger, a Toledo appeals court judge, raised double the amount of Democrat Nancy Fuerst, a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge.

Moyer was seeking his fourth six-year term against Democrat C. Ellen Connally, a retired Cleveland municipal judge. O'Donnell, a former Cleveland judge, was challenged by appeals court Judge William O'Neill of Warren.

Crucial vote shifted

Before O'Donnell was appointed last year, two moderate Republicans often joined Democrats in 4-3 decisions criticized by business groups. Recent rulings have gone largely 4-3 in favor of insurance companies and other businesses.

Lanzinger, 58, spent 18 years as a judge in Lucas County before joining the 6th District Court of Appeals two years ago. Fuerst, 53, of Cleveland, has been a judge since 1997 and an attorney for 16 years.

Moyer, 65, outraised Connally, 59, by tenfold. O'Donnell, 58, raised about 38 times as much as O'Neill, 56, who was elected to the 11th District Court of Appeals in 1996.

Moderate Republican Justice Paul Pfeifer was unopposed because Democrats favored his rulings on schools, insurance companies and jury awards.

While the public may not have followed the Supreme Court races closely, special interests with deep pockets certainly did.

The Ohio State Bar Association estimates court candidates, state parties and independent groups at least matched the $13 million spent in 2002, which was tops in the nation.

A key force driving so much money into Supreme Court races is that Ohio's major economic players stand to gain or lose millions based on the court's decisions.

Narrow division

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.

"The court is perceived as being closely divided on issues, so a single contest could change the court's majority," Baum said.

Although many think that the 2002 election flipped the court to a business-friendly 4-3 majority, one vote doesn't leave much wiggle room.

Corporations, insurance companies and the health-care industry spent millions to back Republican candidates, while most labor unions and trial lawyers lined 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.

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