Friday, February 09, 2007

Terrence O'Donnell, Party Animal

From the Vindy:

Justice Terrence O'Donnell of the Ohio Supreme Court warned fellow Republicans that what happened during last year's statewide elections cannot be repeated.

    "We can't run against ourselves," Justice O'Donnell said Thursday at the Mahoning Valley McKinley Club's annual dinner. "We can't have the auditor run against the attorney general run against the secretary of state and hope to come out of that and have a successful outcome."

    * * *

    He stressed the importance of Ohio in the 2008 presidential election, saying the state "holds the key to the White House." He also looked ahead to the 2010 statewide election saying, "I'm very optimistic about the future and where we're going."
Happily, the Vindy reporter picked up the funny smell and acknowledged it:
    While there is no rule, law or judicial canon that forbids Supreme Court justices from talking about partisan politics during nonelection years, Justice O'Donnell's statements about his party — although he never used the word "Republican" — were somewhat out of the ordinary.
This is a case study in how not to keep people comfortable with our system of choosing judges. A Supreme Court Justice shouldn't be playing party leader. Granted, the Ohio Supremes are the only statewide office holders aside from Mary Taylor, but c'mon, she's a CPA, surely she can step up.

We all understand that judges aren't actually free of party affiliation, but we need reassurance that they know how to keep party and judicial work separate. Generally, judges do this in part by steering clear of party involvement outside of their own races.

When O'Donnell starts talking strategy to Republican activists and talking about what "we" should be doing, I get the heebies. When he starts talking about how important it is that Republicans carry Ohio in '08, they grow to full-fledged jeebies. O'Donnell makes it hard to have confidence that he will impartially decide election cases. Whether or not that's the case, it's the danger of playing party guy.


redhorse said...

Well, you have to give him points for being brass, and then take them right back for being stupid.

Daniel Jack Williamson said...

On the other hand, O'Donnell ran against O'Neill in this past election, and if there is a candidate for judge more openly partisan than O'Donnell, it is O'Neill. In fact, O'Neill has his mind made up about a great many things, and says so on the campaign trail. If only Espy had run against O'Donnell. Even though Espy was once a legislator, thus heavily involved in partisan politics, Espy has always struck me as a fair-minded person, but O'Neill does not seem the least impartial.

Though the primary was ugly, I'm glad the GOP had a primary, and I hope for more primaries, contrary to O'Donnell's suggestion.

Anonymous said...


There's a substantial difference between a judicial candidate saying how he feels about the law, and saying what needs to be done to elect a Republican president. Judicial candiates deal with a lot of issues that are both judicial and political, like union membership cases, tort liability etc. Judges should discuss those things and they should be honest about the fact that Democrats are generally going to interpret the law to form a union broadly and Republicans will interpret it narrowly etc.

I didn't see any legal aspects at all in O'Donnell's speech. Maybe if he had said he interpreted a difficult U.S. Supreme Court Decision as saying it meant we had to elect Republicans it would have at least had a legal tie in...

As for impartiality, O'Neill didn't take campaign contributions and O'Donnell sided with campaign contributor's 90% of the time, even accepting contributions after a case was heard, but before it was decided. He was the main (and worst) example in a long NY Times story about judicial candidates taking money from litigants

Pho said...

Well argued, Anon.

Daniel Jack Williamson said...

Anon, about the O'Donnell part of your message, that's why I said I wish Espy had run against him.

About the O'Neill part of your message, I know full well that O'Neill did not accept campaign contributions. However, I heard O'Neill speak on the campaign trail, not just last year, but in prior years. I would not want to appear in O'Neill's courtroom, because he creates the impression that the testimony of witnesses won't matter, because he already has an opinion on the issue. O'Neill is the LAST person I want as a judge.

Anonymous said...

I think for a judge, "the issue' consists of a couple seperate issues. To keep it as simple as possible, one is what the judge thinks the law means, the other is how that law applies to the facts.

I think a judge can make perfectly clear their interpretation of what the law broadly is on the campaign trail without prejudging factual situations.

I think most judges view of the law is pretty set long before they're in a position to run for an office like the supreme court. If one's really concerned you can go over a judges decision and get a pretty clear picture of their view of the law. Its just most people don't get to see any of that information and we have a system that pretends that it doesn't exist. I'd rather see judges that are honest about it, than judges that say things like "gee I don't think about (insert major legal issue here) and even if I did I couldn't tell you for fear of prejudging the issue"

I'll admit there are legal points you'd be crazy to try and make in Judge O'Neill's court, try a very narrow interpretation of the school funding mandate, but you'd be just as crazy to make the opposite point in O'Donnell's court, its just people outside the legal proffession know about where Judge O'Neill is.

In my view contributions actually create a larger problem because they're concretely linked to individuals and their specific factual situations in a way discussion of legal issues isn't.

Pho said...

Also, discussing politics and policy in the context of one's own race is fundamentally different from cheerleading the party. O'Donnell making explicit his personal stake the outcomes of elections creates an unsavory perception, regardless of what the reality is.

Daniel Jack Williamson said...

What I'd really like to see is a political action committee that reviews the judges based on their sentencing, docket management, and courtroom procedures. Right now, there is no PAC that sorts through a judge's body of work on the bench, so the public has a small amount of information to work with.

Despite your reassurances about O'Neill, I've heard him with my own ears and seen him with my own eyes, and I'm not the least bit confident that he will carefully weigh all the testimony that's put before him.