Rarely politicized or issue-oriented, the races for Ohio Supreme Court Justice have taken on a surprisingly heated twist this year.
In an attempt to upset two of the incumbent Justices, Ohio Sen. Mike Skindell and retired appeals court judge William O'Neill, both Democrats, have leveled harsh criticism of the campaign financing practices of current Justices Terrence O'Donnell and Robert Cupp.
"I say it is fundamentally wrong for a judge to sit on a case involving someone who has just recently contributed to their campaign," said O'Neill.
O'Neill said he specifically takes issues with campaign contributions from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corporation and individuals directly associated with the company. In January, both Cupp's and O'Donnell's campaigns accepted a $6,300 contribution from FirstEnergy before ruling on their case, said O'Neill.
Both Cupp and O'Neill deny any wrongdoing as far as campaign fundraising goes.
"As long as we are going to have judicial elections, there has to be some way to purchase media time to inform the voters about the candidates' qualifications," said Cupp.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice races
Justice Terrance O'Donnell, of Rocky River, and Sen. Mike Skindell, of Lakewood, for the full term commencing Jan. 1, 2013.
Justice Robert Cupp, of Lima, and William O'Neill, of Cleveland, for the full term commencing Jan. 2, 2013.
Justice Yvette Magee Brown, of Columbus, and Sharon Kennedy, of Butler County, for the unexpired term which expires Dec. 31, 2014.
Additionally, those running for positions in the judiciary are required to adhere to certain standards.
"All those running for a judicial office are required to attend a two-hour seminar which lays out the rules," said O'Donnell.
The rules in place are that judges may not personally solicit or accept contribution on behalf of their campaign. Additionally, their campaigns may only raise funds during an election year and there is a cap on how much individuals and companies can contribute. Both O'Donnell and Cupp maintain they have strictly followed those rules.
Skindell said he also takes issue with the current fundraising system, and says it is not an issue of rules being followed, but rather of ethics.
"It just creates an appearance of impropriety and it makes citizens of Ohio lose confidence in the judiciary," said Skindell.
Skindell has pledged that he will recuse himself from any case involving litigants that donated to his campaign. O'Neill on the other hand has not accepted a single dime of campaign contributions.
"If I can succeed in unseating an incumbent without taking a dime in contributions, then it is time to rethink the system," he said.
Cupp, who is running against O'Neill, served on the Ohio Court of Appeals, 3rd Appellate District and was selected presiding judge of the court in 2005. He was also rated "highly recommended" by the Ohio State Bar Association, which recommends candidates based on eight non-political criteria.
O'Donnell began his legal career as a law clerk in the Ohio Supreme Court. He served on the Eighth District Court of Appeals for eight years and was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2003. He is also actively involved in the Professionalism Commission, which sets recent law school graduates up with mentoring lawyers around the state.
Skindell practiced law for 25 years and has served 15 years as part of a legislative body, first as a Lakewood Councilman and then as an state senator. He has also served as the assistant Attorney General in Ohio.
O'Neill has served 10 years on the Eleventh District Court of Appeals and served two terms as presiding judge. He was an assistant Attorney General for 12 years and has sat on The Ohio Supreme Court at the invitation of the chief justice.
In a seemingly less divisive race, Justice Yvette Magee Brown of Columbus, a Democrat and Republican Sharon Kennedy are competing to fill the vacancy left when Maureen O'Conner became chief justice. Brown was appointed to fill the vacancy in 2011. Now both women are hoping to fill the remainder of O'Conner's unexpired term which ends Dec. 31, 2014.
"My unparalleled 27 years of service in the justice system make me an ideal choice," said Kennedy.
Kennedy began her career as a police officer, and later paid her way through law school while clerking for a judge. Currently Kennedy serves as a domestic relations judge in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas. One of her best qualifications to serve as a justice is her philosophy of judicial restraint, said Kennedy.
"I believe in upholding the law, not rewriting it from the bench," she said.
Brown started her legal career working for the Ohio Attorney General's Office. She has served as the chief legal counsel to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and as the domestic relations and juvenile court judge for Franklin County. She also helped establish the Center for Child and Family Advocacy before being appointed to O'Conner's vacancy in January 2011. Aside from Cupp, she was the only other candidate to be rated "highly recommended" by the OSBA.
Brown's office did not return requests for comment.