Analysis: A major battle for control of the Ohio Supreme Court is brewing
Next year's Ohio Supreme Court races could conceivably get lost in the shuffle of a monumental election a year from now.
Ohio voters will go to the polls in November 2024 and find it buried in a long ballot.
It will be swamped by a presidential contest, a U.S. Senate contest, a battle for most seats in the Ohio General Assembly, for Ohio's 15 U.S. House seats, countless common pleas and state appeals court seats, and a host of county contests that, as in the case of the Hamilton County prosecutor's race, will see multi-million dollar campaigns.
But it is too important to be overlooked.
Three seats on Ohio's court will be up for election next year. And both parties have their candidates lined up for the Dec. 20 candidate filing deadline.
Monday, the Ohio Democratic Party announced that two of its incumbent members of the Ohio Supreme Court, Melody Stewart and Michael Donnelly, will run for re-election, along with a newcomer, Lisa Forbes of Cleveland, a judge on the 8th District Court of Appeals.
The Republicans have incumbent Joe Deters, the former Hamilton County prosecutor, running to keep his seat, along with two non-incumbent common pleas court judges, Megan Shanahan of Hamilton County and Dan Hawkins of Franklin County.
It has yet to be sorted out who will be running against whom.
The court that is elected next fall may well be deciding issues related to the reproductive rights amendment that was approved by 57% of Ohio voters in the Nov. 7 election.
And a host of other issues that touch people's lives, from utility rates to voting rights.
The court today
The seven-member Ohio Supreme Court is made up today of four Republicans and three Democrats.
That was a split that worked for the Democrats and voting rights groups last year when Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor voted with the Democrats on the court to repeatedly reject legislative district maps drawn by Republicans.
But O'Connor is gone, a casualty of Ohio's judicial age limits law.
A year ago, Ohio voters replaced her as chief justice with Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy, a consistent vote for the GOP maps.
Kennedy defeated Democratic Justice Jennifer Brunner for chief justice last year, in part because it was the first Ohio judicial election where party affiliation was listed on the ballot in Ohio Supreme Court and state appellate races, thanks to a 2021 law enacted by the GOP supermajority in the legislature.
On Nov. 7, Brunner, who, in 2026, will have to run for re-election to the court or a state office such as governor, filed a lawsuit in federal court to have the party designation law struck down.
The Ohio Judicial Conference opposed the party designations from the start.
"It's a bad idea," said former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, a Republican who is now executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference. "The selection of judges involves some degree of politics; and many get there by appointment."
Having party designations on the judicial ballot, Pfeifer said, encourages straight party tickets. Statewide, that might favor Republicans.
"But in counties that are trending Democratic, like Franklin and Hamilton counties, it will benefit the other side," Pfeifer said.
Whichever way Brunner's lawsuit turns out, it is not going to be decided by the Dec. 20 candidate filing deadline and next year's Ohio Supreme Court races will almost certainly have party designations on the ballot.
The question mark
Most of the confusion over which candidates will face each other revolves around Deters.
Deters was appointed in January when Kennedy became chief justice. He has a choice to make, and very soon.
He can either run against Forbes for the remaining two years of Kennedy's term as a justice, and then, if he wins, run for a full six-year term in 2026. He would be 69 years old in 2026 and just get in under the age limit wire of 70.
Or, Deters can decide to take on either Donnelly or Stewart in 2024 for a full six-year term.
Deters, a favorite of both Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Republican Party Chair Alex Triantafilou, will be free to make the choice. After all, he is an incumbent, which Shanahan and Hawkins are not.
Incumbency has its privileges.
"We haven't announced who is running against whom yet and won't until closer to the deadline,'' Triantafilou said.
Forbes, a graduate of Case Western Reserve University Law School, doesn't seem to care who she is facing. She just wants to be part of a Democratic majority in the court.
"I want to run a campaign that is wholly focused on the Ohio Supreme Court being the firewall of democracy that it should be in Ohio," Forbes said.
The Ohio Democratic Party is hoping that next year's election will turn out droves of Democrats for President Biden, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and a likely constitutional amendment to take elected officials out of the process of drawing legislative district lines.
All of those things, the Democrats say, could be a rising tide that lifts the boats of their Ohio Supreme Court candidates.
We shall see.
Meanwhile, there are only about three weeks to go before the filing deadline. Closer than Christmas. Time to sort this out.
Time for Deters to say what he wants for Christmas.