Federal judge tears down Ohio’s rules on judicial election spending

Wednesday, October 4, 2000

A federal judge has dismantled the Ohio Supreme Court's restrictions on how much judicial candidates can spend on election campaigns, saying spending caps violate free-speech rights.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., in a recent decision handed down in Cleveland, said judicial candidates suffer from the spending cap “which acts to deter them from raising sufficient campaign funds to carry their messages to the voters in the manner in which they would prefer.”

The state Supreme Court said it established the limits in 1995 to ensure the public that judges would not be tempted to decide cases in favor of campaign backers. But in Oliver's Sept. 27 ruling, he said the limits offend the First Amendment.

The case involves two Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judges, Ronald Suster and Patricia Cleary, who first challenged the state Supreme Court's limits in a 1996 lawsuit. Suster and Cleary contended that a $75,000 cap in campaign spending for trial court judgeships was hardly enough to run a viable campaign.

Suster, for one, said he spent nearly all of his allowance in 1995 facing off against primary candidates and barely had enough left for a general election campaign.

“Judges are prohibited from speaking out on issues,” Suster, a Democrat, told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. “We're usually stuck at the end of the ballot and relegated to a low profile at election time. It's so important for judges to be able to spend sufficient money to bring their qualifications before the electorate.”

A state Supreme Court spokesman declined to comment on the case, saying the state attorney general's office would review Oliver's ruling and advise the high court on whether to appeal.

Oliver's ruling is his second in the case. He barred enforcement of the rules in September 1996, determining that the limits are unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 landmark decision in Buckley v. Valeo. That case upheld a number of contribution limits but barred spending restrictions, saying they violate the First Amendment.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals began considering appeals in the Ohio case last year. But the court remanded the case back to U.S. District Court after the state made a few adjustments to the spending caps.

The Ohio Supreme Court's original rules limited judicial spending to $75,000 per general election. The court also imposed limits for campaign contributions to judicial candidates, ranging from $250 for trial court candidates to $2,000 for state Supreme Court candidates.

After Suster and Cleary's lawsuit, the state Supreme Court adjusted the spending limits to boost the caps for judicial candidates in more populous counties. The caps topped out at $125,000 in the general election and $62,500 in the primaries for the largest counties, with a sliding scale for the smaller counties.

But in his second ruling, Oliver said the adjustments failed to adequately address the unconstitutionality of any spending limits. The judge didn't consider the contribution limits.

Twenty-two states joined in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Ohio's defense of the spending limits. The states said they support the Ohio Supreme Court's conclusion that limits on judicial campaign spending are needed to protect the public's belief in an independent and impartial judiciary.

They argue that campaign spending has greatly increased since 1976, and that the Constitution does allow limits on campaign spending.

Brenda Wright, lead counsel for the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, said Oliver's ruling hardly breaks new ground in the campaign-finance debate. She noted that the 6th Circuit had already ruled in the 1998 case Kruse v. Cincinnati that city-imposed spending limits were unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal in that case.

“This decision seems to have echoed what the 6th Circuit had already said in the Cincinnati case,” Wright said in a telephone interview.

She said the biggest developments in campaign-finance law would likely come from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering Vermont's public-financing law.

Wright noted that a federal judge last August supported vast portions of the Vermont law.

That law, which went into effect in January 1998, limits campaign contributions and spending and offers public financing to candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.

But Wright said the Ohio case could be the one to test the U.S. Supreme Court's reliance on Buckley.

“Four justices of the Supreme Court have suggested Buckley should be reconsidered on the question of spending limits,” she said. “Maybe it's a question of getting the right case before the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, Oliver's ruling pleased state Republicans who said the restrictions benefited incumbent judges who didn't have to worry about challengers building campaigns against them.

“It was a very weak system of competitive elections,” said Jim Trakas, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party. “The rules flew in the face of my interpretation of the Constitution, which gives the public a free flow of information during the election.”

Trakas said the spending caps discouraged many potential candidates from running against incumbent judges because they didn't think they could raise enough money under the cap to compete.

But Jimmy Dimora, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said the absence of the caps would create incumbency protection. Dimora said incumbents enjoy more name recognition and tend to raise much more money than challengers.

The restrictions, he said, force competition during the election “as opposed to letting incumbents spend as much money as they can raise.”

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