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A battle for the bench Featured

9:35am EDT July 22, 2002

The customarily sleepy Ohio Supreme Court race is wide-eyed this year.

Next month, Justice Alice Robie Resnick, who has served since 1988, will defend her seat against Terrence O'Donnell, a judge of the 8th District Court of Appeals. Justice Deborah Cook, whose term began in 1995, is challenged by Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Timothy S. Black.

Much of the battle is drawn along traditional lines: Businesses favor the Republican candidates O'Donnell and Cook; labor has endorsed Democrats Resnick and Black.

"The public is going to be more aware of the Supreme Court race," Brett Buerek, executive director of the Ohio House Republican Campaign Committee, told attendees of an Ohio Manufacturers' Association luncheon earlier this year. "One reason is the antibusiness environment that the court is creating."

William Burga, president of the Ohio AFL/CIO Federation of Labor, argues the current makeup of the court isn't antibusiness -- it's justice for working families.

"I think the court overall has been very fair, and they certainly are very careful to interpret the laws to make sure they're legally on solid ground," Burga says.

Pre-election rhetoric has centered around the so-called 4-3 split. An Ohio Chamber of Commerce analysis of the current court's voting record shows Justices Paul Pfeifer, Francis Sweeney, Andrew Douglas and Resnick, who often vote together on cases, earned overall scores near or below the court's 31 percent pro-business average.

"The 'gang of four,' as we like to refer to them, and Justice Resnick being one of those four, are simply creating law instead of interpreting law and creating a wealth of new liabilities and costs for not only business but ultimately every Ohioan being consumers in this state," says Ohio Chamber President Andrew E. Doehrel.

Burga says he could understand the 4-3 argument better if it were split down party lines; the four are two Democrats and two Republicans.

Both the pro-business and pro-labor sides frequently refer to the court's August 1999 decision to throw out state lawmakers' 1996 tort reform package.

Burga says his organization warned legislators the reforms wouldn't hold up in court "because you can't have the legislature setting limits on what a jury might award someone in the case of a tort. They tried to, and the court said it's unconstitutional."

Doehrel counters that the court overstepped its bounds in deciding the case before it went to a lower court.

"They literally created a new venue and said the court has a right to review any law passed by the legislature on a direct appeal," Doehrel says. "They have, in essence, set themselves up as a superlegislature -- but there's only seven of them."

The chamber, as well as other statewide business interests such as the National Federation of Independent Business, claim Resnick's voting record -- which has an 18 percent pro-business ranking in the chamber's survey -- doesn't show fairness and balance.

"It shows an unquestionable bias on her part to be hammering the employers in this state every chance she gets," Doehrel says.

The chamber favors Cook -- who has a 59-percent pro-business ranking -- saying she's been more fair and has opined that the court, indeed, has gone too far in some of its actions.

Burga says Resnick has an "impeccable record" on the court and has been "above reproach." The AFL/CIO also has endorsed Black, seeking to unseat Cook, whom Burga says "very seldom will rule in favor of a person over a corporation."

For themselves, the candidates are practically left to watch the battle from the sidelines; judicial canons -- essentially a code of conduct -- prohibit them from making statements that might even appear to commit them with respect to any cases or issue.

Whatever the end result, both sides, in their own way, bring up the crux of another issue: The public -- business included -- is largely uninformed about the Supreme Court's actions and ramifications.

"The corporate community needs to understand the laws are made for everyone, not just for them, and the Constitution is for everyone," Burga says.

Doehrel says much of the reaction he's heard about the race is astonishment on the part of business owners who aren't cognizant of court decisions -- even ones that would most affect them.

"People know about the education decision," he says, referring to the school funding issue, "but they don't see the other 10 cases that were released that day -- many of which would have impacted them. And quite frankly, businesses are not informed about he importance of the court."

How to reach: Ohio Chamber of Commerce, www.ohiochamber.com/political/court2000.html, 228-4201; Ohio AFL/CIO, www.ohaflcio.org, 224-8271. Visit the Ohio Republican Partyís site, www.ohiogop.org, for biographical information on Justice Deborah Cook and Judge Terrence OíDonnell. For links to Web sites of Democratic candidates Justice Alice Robie Resnick and Judge Timothy Black, go to www.ohiodems.org. The League of Women Voters of Ohio has information about the November election and candidates at www.smartvoter.org/2000/11/07/oh/state.

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN.