A panel of three appellate judges voted unanimously on July 30 to drop disciplinary charges against Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor. The charges were reinitiated in March 2003 by Ohio Chief Appellate Justice William Wolff, of Dayton, based on campaign advertisements, which Justice O’Connor ran during her October 2002 election campaign.
In two television ads, then-candidate O’Connor appeared in judicial robes while text on screen identified the years during which she had been a judge and magistrate. The charges filed against her alleged that the ads were misleading, because at the time of the election, O’Connor was the sitting Lieutenant Governor of Ohio.
An earlier panel, which had ruled on similar charges before they were dismissed and then refiled by Judge Wolff, held that misleading campaign advertisements violate Ohio’s Code of Judicial Conduct.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation took up the case because the prosecution threatened to squelch the speech of candidates for judicial office. While denying that advertisements at issue in this case were misleading, ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari today stressed the importance of allowing a candidate for public office to craft her own message to the voters. “Punishing truthful speech because it might confuse some people runs the risk of holding candidates to the standards of the least informed and least attentive voters.”
The ACLU hailed the victory as an important landmark for judicial campaign speech. According to Benson Wolman, who represented Justice O’Connor in the case as an ACLU volunteer, Ohio was the last state in which truthful but allegedly misleading statements could form the basis for judicial discipline. “Ohio today joins Mississippi, Michigan and Georgia in discarding an impractical and dangerous approach to political speech in favor of a freer, better standard.”
In June, the ACLU filed a motion for a Writ of Prohibition in the Ohio Supreme Court seeking to bar the disciplinary action against Justice O’Connor because Chief Appellate Justice Wolff, who had filed the charges, had previously been involved in the case in another capacity, before it was dismissed in February 2003. That suit, which was to be tried by a special panel of seven judges appointed by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, alleged a conflict of interest on the part of judge Wolff. Because the underlying complaint against Justice O’Connor has now been dismissed, the Prohibition action in the Ohio Supreme Court will be dismissed shortly.