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January 7, 2020

"Why Is the Chief Justice of Ohio's Supreme Court Lobbying Against Sentencing Reforms?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this Reason commentary from a few weeks ago that I just came across today. Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

Ohio lawmakers trying to pass sentencing reforms have faced opposition this year from the usual suspects, such as lobbyists for prosecutors and law enforcement. But they've also run into vocal criticism from an unexpected source: Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

It is unusual — and it may damage the objectivity and independence of the court system — for sitting Supreme Court justices to lobby for or against legislation.  But that hasn't stopped O'Connor from jumping into the middle of the legislature's deliberations over a pair of criminal justice reform proposals. In newspaper op-eds, public appearances, and letters to members of the state Senate, O'Connor, who happens to be a former prosecutor and lobbyist, has repeatedly argued against a bill that would downgrade some felony drug possession charges to misdemeanor offenses.

O'Connor, of course, has a First Amendment right to speak about legislation and to criticize the legislative process if she wants.  But she seems to recognize the unusual nature of her advocacy. "You may think it unprecedented to receive a letter from me, as Chief Justice, that addresses my concerns about [Senate Bill 3]," O'Connor wrote in a December 3 missive to state legislators, a copy of which was obtained by Reason.  But, she adds, it is "my duty" to speak out about issues that "affect the administration of criminal justice and the operation of Ohio's courts."...

Sen. John Eklund (R–Munson), the sponsor of the bill in question and one of the recipients of O'Connor's letter, agrees that it's unusual to get a letter from a sitting Supreme Court justice advocating against a specific piece of legislation. Eklund's bill is one of two major criminal justice reform measures that have been jockeying for legislators' support in Columbus this year. He says says it's rooted in the idea that people deserve a chance to prove they can learn from past mistakes. "We want people to get better and move on to lead productive lives, while also ensuring that traffickers are arrested and stay behind bars," he explains....

At the same time that she's been lobbying against Senate Bill 3, O'Connor has been pushing the legislature to approve the other criminal justice bill it was considering this year: House Bill 1.  In her December 3 letter, O'Connor highlights the House bill's support from law enforcement groups — she specifically name-checks the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association — as a reason to prefer it to the Senate proposal.

The House bill also seeks to shunt some drug offenders into treatment programs, but it does not reclassify some drug felonies as misdemeanors. O'Connor and others claim that the cudgel of a felony charge is necessary to get offenders into treatment. "Downgrading the underlying offenses will only reduce one of these incentives and the likelihood of a lasting recovery," the chief justice wrote in a September 19 letter to Eklund.

There's no law or rule that says judges can't lobby for legislation. Indeed, Jonas Anderson, a professor of law at American University who has written about judicial ethics and lobbying, points out that there are times when judicial input can offer important information to legislators, particularly when they can provide technical information about the workings or needs of the justice system.

But judges should be careful about crossing the line into pushing or opposing specific policies, he adds. "We think of the judicial system as a place where you can get a decision about a dispute that's free from political considerations," says Anderson.

In lobbying against Senate Bill 3, O'Connor has indeed made some technical arguments about how the court system would operate under the new sentencing guidelines proposed by the law.  But her objections are overwhelmingly directed at the underlying policy....

After a career defined by criss-crossing the dividing lines between branches of government — and by advocating for tougher criminal justice legislation both from inside the executive branch and as an outside lobbyist — O'Connor apparently thinks it appropriate to tell state lawmakers what to do.  Indeed, this is not the first time she's tried to stamp out sentencing reforms.  In 2018, she penned op-eds telling voters to oppose a ballot measure that would have reduced drug possession penalties in order to keep low-level nonviolent offenders out of the prison system.  Passage of the measure would be "catastrophic" for Ohio, she wrote.  Not exactly the sort of dispassionate analysis one would hope to read from the head of the state's highest court.  Voters listened, and they defeated that proposal at the ballot box last year....

By using her authority as the state's top jurist to parrot talking points from prosecutors and law enforcement lobbyists, O'Connor may yet succeed in stomping criminal justice reform efforts, but she also undermines her own credibility and that of the state's court system.  The legitimacy of the judiciary survives largely because the system is perceived to be separate from the political machinations that go on within a legislature.  O'Connor's willingness to use her judicial position to help shape policy should make Ohioans wonder about her ability to be an objective arbiter.  "Judges shouldn't be muzzled," says Anderson, "but lobbying as a judge — not as an individual, but as a judge — risks the independence and objectivity of the judicial branch."

January 7, 2020 at 09:32 PM | Permalink

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