Speeches

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer
Testimony on HB 266
Jan. 25, 2006

Chairman Willamowski, Representative Harwood, members of the committee… thank you for providing me the opportunity to address the committee on House Bill 266. I also extend my appreciation to Representative Seitz and the co-sponsors of this legislation.

I know that Jo Ellen Cline, the Legislative Counsel of the Supreme Court, testified last week on the specifics of the legislation….so I will confine my remarks to the particular points that would strengthen the trust that citizens have for our system of government.

For more than 200 years, the courts of Ohio have withstood criticism and challenges. Unpopular decisions have been met with impeachment votes, battles over funding the courts and in recent years, high-profile cases have been the focus of expensive media campaigns that have been divisive and misleading.

A majority of citizens believe campaign donations influence the behavior of a judicial candidate if he or she should win. How can we expect citizens to believe otherwise when more than seven million dollars was raised by candidates in three of the Supreme Court races in 2004?

I wish to congratulate members of the House and the Senate for approving Substitute Senate Bill One during the special session at the end of 2004. By identifying the financial contributors to outside campaigns, you made a major step toward moderating the tenor of these campaigns.

But it was one step. And we must do more.

The trend indicates more expensive campaigns are to come, and recent federal court rulings will call into question the use of contested elections to select members of the judiciary.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling in a case from Minnesota that struck down some of that state's restrictions on campaign fund raising by judicial candidates.

For at least the states that make-up the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals….judicial candidates will be able to directly solicit campaign donations.

The ruling dismantled the barrier between a campaign donation and a candidate, and follows a separate court decision that eliminated a supreme court rule regulating campaign speech.

The out-going Chief Justice of Minnesota, Kathleen Blatz, reacted by saying she is “worried that Minnesota's judiciary may not be recognizable in 10 years.”

Despite the growing storm clouds, a strong, bipartisan majority of Americans support a judiciary that is fair and impartial.

An overwhelming number support a court system that is accountable to the law and the Constitution, not political pressure.

A new national survey by the judicial campaign monitoring group, Justice at Stake, found that 84 percent of the respondents strongly agree with this statement….”We need strong courts that are free from political influence.”

The survey also found that 62 percent of Americans want the courts to be accountable to the law and the Constitution….and not to the other branches of government.

House Bill 266 recognizes that our system of government will be strengthened by attracting more highly skilled and talented lawyers to the judiciary. This legislation also addresses the public's distrust of judicial campaign fundraising by reducing the frequency of judicial campaigns.

Raise Minimum Qualifications

Currently, any lawyer who has been practicing law in Ohio for six years is eligible to become a judge, and that includes Chief Justice.

That is simply not long enough.

Ohio is at the low end of the spectrum nationally, and this would be one of the easier steps we could take to enhance the current system….setting a ten year minimum in the practice of law for a Common Pleas candidate, 12 years for the Court of Appeals and 15 years of experience for a Supreme Court candidate.

The new training requirement for judicial candidates contained in this bill would not only result in better prepared judges, but 40 hours of judicial candidate training would also tell us if a candidate is serious about being a judge.

This training would be in addition to the course work already required of new judges….meaning a winning judicial candidate must complete 120 hours of education before they have been on the job more than a few months.

Extend Terms of Office

During my years on the court, a number of intelligent, motivated attorneys have told me that they would run for judge if they knew their time in office would be longer than six years. Many of the best and the brightest are reluctant to give-up a well-established private practice.

Some of them spent 15, 20 years building their reputation, developing a client base. And they look at what they have accomplished and decide it's not worth giving it up for a six year term in office. To many…it's simply not worth it.

Our pool should be deeper.

Judicial term lengths in Ohio fall behind those in many other states. More than 55 percent of all state court appellate judges serve terms of more than six years, and the terms of judges of courts of last resort in 35 states are more than six years.

Longer terms would achieve the appropriate balance between independence and accountability, reduce the frequency of fund raising and increase the number of qualified potential candidates.

House Bill 266 is part of a larger effort by the courts to ensure that the Ohio judiciary is both fair and efficient.

Most everybody in the courthouse, from the judge, to the court administrator and court security personnel…are receiving more professional training than just a few years ago.

Court interpreters will soon be tested and certified, and standards will soon be developed for court reporters.

As part of this larger effort, Representative Seitz has agreed to add two provisions to House Bill 266. One would ensure that each county has the proper number of judges, and the other provides funding for a computer link between all Ohio courts, and would establish a separate fund for court security.

The provision concerning the number of judges would establish a Judicial Allotment Commission to study the allotment of judges in each county every ten years based on the U.S. census. The Commission would submit its recommendations to the General Assembly.

The funding provision would not require any new spending by the General Assembly. Instead, the bill would re-direct four dollars from the court fees that generate revenue for Crime Victims Compensation Fund…which currently has a surplus of more than 42 million dollars.

Those fees would then be used to establish a fund administered by the Supreme Court to assist local communities in providing court security. Through the generous support of the General Assembly in the 1990s, all local courts were able to purchase security equipment. This fund would compliment those efforts.

The money also would establish and maintain the Ohio Courts Network, a digital link between all Ohio courts. Not only would this greatly enhance our ability to monitor case statistics, it would, for the first time, give all courts access to a defendant's criminal record and court-ordered supervision.

By linking all courts we also would provide timely access to court filings such as protection orders. Currently there is no guarantee that the court in another county would know that a protection order has been filed against a particular person. This system would fill a void by sharing critical information.

The most important attribute for the judiciary is its neutrality—the fairness and impartiality that is the fundamental requirement for the courts to make decisions guided by only the constitution, statutes, and case law.

Just as important is the perception of the public. All citizens, not only the ones who bring a case before the courts, must see and believe that a court decision is not shaped or guided by outside influence.

Citizens in a democracy expect that their desires for the betterment of their communities will be addressed by the legislative and executive branches of government. Expectations and beliefs are the basis for the rule of law, and that is why the authority of the judiciary is both resilient and fragile, and it is worthy of respect and dignity. It must be protected and exercised with wisdom and restraint.

The rule of law and the beliefs of the citizenry are indelibly linked.

Our state and our country have a history of addressing faults in our system of government. And each time they acted, they did so to protect and highlight the independence and authority of the judiciary.