Law & Courts

Schools at Issue In Ohio Elections For High Court

By Alan Richard — September 18, 2002 5 min read
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Ohio voters will choose a governor and new legislators in November. But the races that may have the biggest impact on education in the Buckeye State aren’t the ones most people are talking about.

Elections 2002

Those key, but lower-profile, elections are for two seats on the Ohio Supreme Court—and the results may determine how the state pays for its public schools for years to come.

Despite strict guidelines that prohibit court candidates from speaking their minds on issues facing the justices, lobbying groups of various stripes are trying to educate the public on exactly where each of the candidates stands.

This year’s winners likely will tip the scales in DeRolph v. State of Ohio, one of the most closely watched and longest-running school finance court cases in the country.

Education advocacy groups want to elect two Democrats to the state’s high court, believing those judges would require the state to invest more heavily in public schools and fix alleged inequities in Ohio’s finance system. Business groups favor the Republican candidates, one of whom is the current lieutenant governor.

Though the statewide court races are nonpartisan, the party affiliations of the candidates have been widely publicized.

“Officially, we really don’t lobby for candidates. But unofficially, we know the school-funding case rests on which way this election will go,” said Donna J. Boylan, the director of governmental relations and communications for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators.

Lt. Gov. Maureen O’Connor, a former trial judge and prosecutor, faces Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Tim Black, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully in 2000. They’re running for the seat now held by Justice Andrew Douglas, a Republican who is retiring.

In the other race, another Republican, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, faces Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Janet Burnside, a Democrat who has the support of some education groups.

If both Democrats win, the final judgment in DeRolph may resemble two earlier rulings in the case, in 1997 and 2000. Those rulings directed the state to overhaul its school finance system in a way that benefits poorer districts and lessens Ohio’s dependence on property taxes as the main source of money for K-12 education.

Observers say that if either the lieutenant governor wins or Justice Stratton survives this year’s election challenge—or both win—then the court could affirm last year’s ruling that required the state to do much less to fix the finance system.

That outcome would be viewed as a huge setback by the more than 500 districts that joined the DeRolph lawsuit, filed on behalf of a Perry County parent in 1991.

“The governor and House and Senate all believe they’ve fixed the school funding system and are trying to line the court with those who agree with that,” said William L. Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in School Funding, which filed the lawsuit and has publicly backed Judges Black and Burnside in their bids to move up to the supreme court.

Business groups such as the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, have endorsed the GOP candidates, and not only because they fear higher taxes if the court requires greater spending on schools. The chamber is lobbying on other issues: Its members want new limits on frivolous lawsuits, for example.

The last supreme court election in Ohio wasn’t pretty. Third- party groups ran TV ads in 2000 that observers say swept any sort of collegiality out of the campaign.

“It had gotten very, very ugly,” said Barbara E. Reed, who watches judicial elections for the Constitution Project, a nonpartisan group in Washington that works to improve courts nationwide.

Ohio isn’t alone when it comes to electing members of its highest court. Twenty-three states popularly elect their highest judges, said Roy A. Schotland, a law professor at Georgetown University and an expert on judicial elections.

This year’s Ohio races seem ripe for more rottenness. While TV commercials and other advertisements have been cordial so far, the candidates expect an onslaught of negative ads before Election Day.

“We’re realistic, and know that people are going to do that,” said Amy Sabath, the campaign manager for Lt. Gov. O’Connor.

Final Ruling Ahead?

Last year, it seemed the DeRolph case might be near its end.

The court issued a 4-3 decision last fall upholding the school funding system as constitutional. But the ruling did require the legislature to spend more money on schools and close some loopholes that had eroded some funding for school districts. (“School Finance System Upheld by Ohio Court,” Sept. 12, 2001.)

Last year’s ruling retreated from the court’s own two previous decisions declaring the finance system unconstitutional.

Crediting the legislature for raising school spending last year by $1.4 billion, the court in 2001 backed off its previous order that had required lawmakers to draw up a new system that would lessen schools’ dependence on property taxes.

Then, state leaders gave the case new life.

Even though the court was upholding the school finance system, Republican Gov. Bob Taft’s administration asked the court to reconsider its decision. The state’s lawyers contended that the post-Sept. 11 economy wouldn’t allow even more money to be spent on schools, and that the court had used inaccurate information when it suggested that additional money would be required.

The court agreed to reconsider the case, then attempted to bring the opposing sides to a settlement through an outside mediator. (“Mediator Has Tough Job in Ohio Funding Case,” Jan. 23, 2002.)

It didn’t work. The mediator quit in March, frustrated that neither side would budge. The DeRolph case is back to where it was last year before the supreme court. Observers don’t expect a ruling before Election Day in November.

Campaign Rules

This year, the supreme court candidates in Ohio have more freedom to talk about their judicial philosophies than ever, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Minnesota law earlier this year that had limited what judicial candidates could discuss. But the Ohio candidates still must follow state guidelines that prohibit candidates from talking about how they would rule on specific cases during their six- year terms.

For example, Ms. O’Connor, the Republican lieutenant governor, can talk about her experience and philosophy, but not her views on school funding or other issues before the court. She can’t debate her opponent in public, but can spar with him privately before a newspaper editorial board.

Her name will appear soon alongside Justice Stratton’s on green-and-white yard signs, paid for by the state Republican Party. But her political affiliation won’t be listed on the Nov. 5 ballots.

“It’s a very fine line, and we do not cross that line at all,” said Ms. Sabath, the campaign manager for Ms. O’Connor.

Both sides in the contests hope voters will learn enough about the court races—and their potential impact—to make the best decisions on Election Day.

“Even though this is a key race in Ohio, most people aren’t aware [of it],” Ms. Sabath said. “A lot of people don’t even know you vote for the supreme court.”

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