COLUMBUS—The Ohio Senate this week passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 20, introduced by Senate President Larry Obhof (R-Medina) and President Pro Tempore Bob Peterson (R-Washington Court House). The resolution summons Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill to appear before a joint committee of the legislature to explain his decision to campaign for a statewide partisan office while remaining an active member of the state’s highest court.
The Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to resign from office immediately upon becoming a candidate for any partisan, nonjudicial elective office. Justice O’Neill announced in October 2017 that he is running for the Democratic nomination for Governor, and he has engaged in a wide range of partisan political activities since that time. He has remained on the Court and continues to rule on cases, despite repeated calls for his resignation.
“The Ohio Constitution gives the legislature the responsibility to ensure the integrity of the judicial system,” said Obhof. “Justice O’Neill’s candidacy in a partisan race, not to mention his public antics over the past few months, brings that into question.”
Article IV, Section 17 of the Ohio Constitution provides for legislative removal of judges by a two-thirds vote of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The process requires a summons to be served upon the judge, who is then given an opportunity to be heard prior to a legislative vote on the judge’s removal. Senate Concurrent Resolution 20 would begin this process.
O’Neill claims that he will leave the bench on January 26 – nearly three months after declaring his partisan candidacy. The Senate Resolution will provide legislators the option to proceed with removal if O’Neill does not follow through on the resignation. It is believed that this is the first time the Senate has exercised its right under Article IV, Section 17 to vote to summon a sitting Justice.
“We do not do this lightly,” said Obhof. “This procedure, while rare, is a necessary safeguard to protect the integrity of the courts. We are aware of no other example in Ohio history where a Justice engaged in such partisan activities for such an extended length of time.”
Partisan campaigning is widely viewed as inconsistent with the role of judges, who must remain fair and impartial to all who come before them. Nonetheless, Justice O’Neill has engaged in significant partisan activity, including naming a running mate, maintaining a campaign website, and taking partisan positions on a range of issues.
In early December, the Ohio State Bar Association released a statement calling for O’Neill’s immediate resignation, stating: “As a declared candidate for Governor with a published campaign platform, recusal is insufficient to remove any appearance of conflict or impropriety.”
Senate Concurrent Resolution 20 now heads to the House of Representatives for further consideration.