Justice Maureen O’Connor says campaign money doesn’t affect her

political clap-trap legal eagles Ohio Supreme Court

In 2006, the Ohio Supreme Court found itself sweating beneath the national spotlight. The New York Times had run a damning article detailing how the court routinely favors those providing hefty campaign contributions.

According to the paper's research, justices ruled on behalf of donors 70 percent of the time. Some, like Terrence O'Donnell of Rocky River, sided with the money 91 percent of the time.

Suddenly the rest of America understood what Ohioans have long known: Ohio Supreme Court rulings seem to be available to the highest bidder.

"I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station in any race I've ever been in as I did in a judicial race," Justice Paul Pfeifer told The Times. "Everyone interested in contributing has very specific interests. They mean to be buying a vote."

The court, obviously, was none too happy to be called out in the national press. It's an issue that still stings today. Ask Justice Maureen O'Connor about it, and be prepared for a full frontal attack.

Her tone grows sharp and defensive, flooded with annoyance. The Times numbers were inflated, she claims, and she resents the implication that she's selling her vote. "Do you know what you're even talking about?" she demands.

But there's a reason behind her hostility. O'Connor will go before voters this fall, and she has much to be defensive about.

There was a time when O'Connor couldn't win an election to save her life. During the 1980s, she lost four straight bids for the Summit County Common Pleas Court. She didn't land her first judgeship until 1993, when the Republican Party appointed her to a vacancy.

But O'Connor quickly brandished her judicial aptitude. Defense lawyers praised her diligence, while prosecutors applauded her patience. She attracted little criticism, aside from her preference for wearing leather mini-skirts beneath her robe. A year later, O'Connor won her first election with 68 percent of the vote.

She didn't stay on the bench for long, however. Three months later, the GOP appointed her to yet another vacancy. She became the new Summit County prosecutor.

That's where she quickly established a reputation as a no-quarter-given ballbuster. Under her watch, crime rates fell and indictments rose. She was following the route of ambitious prosecutors everywhere, pounding even low-level criminals with a dizzying array of charges.

Her most famous case involved the bust of an Akron escort service. That effort ended with 1,088 charges against 67 women. For the most part, those charged were simply low-level call girls. Still, O'Connor slapped them with everything from money-laundering to racketeering. The case was eventually dismissed, but it was emblematic of O'Connor's bloodlust.

She also became notorious for trying violent juveniles as adults. In 1996, 14-year-old Donzell Lewis was picked up after a botched drug heist. Lewis had accompanied Michael Stallings to the home of a drug dealer, whom they planned to rob. When the dealer refused to hand over the money, Stallings shot 16-year-old Rolisha Shepard, who just happened to be at the dealer's apartment. She died holding her 14-month-old son in her arms.

O'Connor had Lewis' case moved to adult court, where she charged him with involuntary manslaughter. During closing arguments, O'Connor referred to him as "a little sociopath." The jury agreed. Lewis was sentenced to 14 years, becoming the youngest person ever sent to an Ohio prison.

But O'Connor took a polar approach to white-collar criminals — especially those linked to her Republican patrons.

In 1989, the city of Cuyahoga Falls purchased Blue Cross health insurance through broker Robert Myers. Three years later, James Collver, a former Blue Cross employee, accused Myers of swindling the Falls.

In a lawsuit that Collver filed against Blue Cross, he claimed that Myers was involved in an elaborate kickback scheme with Blue Cross salesman Edward James. Collver accused James of offering customers highball rates, then steering them to Myers for a "better" deal. In exchange for the referrals, Myers gave James numerous kickbacks, including a Corvette, a spacious house, and $150,000.

In the meantime, customers were saddled with an overpriced plan. City employees in Cuyahoga Falls watched their health-care costs nearly double.

Police investigated Collver's allegations. But Myers and James had made campaign contributions to the city's Republican Mayor, Don Robart, to whom the officers reported.

Not surprisingly, detectives never bothered to interview Collver. James and Myers turned down interviews with investigators, who never issued them subpoenas. And though the department's final report notes "strong support to the possibility of a kickback relationship," it claimed that all the evidence was "circumstantial." The city recommended no prosecution.

When the report finally landed in O'Connor's lap, her touch went uncharacteristically soft. She responded with a letter praising the investigation and agreed not to prosecute.

"I guess what upsets me the most is that it was covered up by O'Connor," Council President Kathy Hummel told Scene in 2002.

Today, O'Connor claims she doesn't remember the case, but is insulted by the notion that she covered up anything. "For someone to speculate that I was in some way trying to protect Robart — that's ridiculous," she says. "That doesn't even warrant a response. I never shied away from prosecution, no matter who the perpetrator was. If we didn't prosecute, there must have been valid reasons."

O'Connor's party allegiance landed her in trouble again in 1996, when the Ohio Election Commission cited her for illegally soliciting employees for a Republican Christmas fund-raiser.

"It is my understanding that almost everyone from our office purchased a ticket for last year's party," she wrote in an office memo, a none-too-subtle reminder of who controlled their jobs. "I am hoping to have the same result this year."

She was slapped with a $50 fine.

But someone was impressed with her political moxie. In 1998, Bob Taft scooped her up as his gubernatorial running mate. Together, they waged what became the most expensive race ever in Ohio at the time, beating Lee Fisher and Michael Coleman.

For the next several years, O'Connor spent her time as most lieutenant governors do, making public-service announcements and reminding people to fasten their seat belts.

But she didn't plan to stay away from the action for long. In 2002, she announced that she was running for the Ohio Supreme Court.

There was little in her résumé to show that she was qualified. At the time, her judicial experience amounted to less than two years on the Summit County bench.

"I was scratching my head, thinking 'She was lieutenant governor — no one knows the lieutenant governor,'" says Justice Pfeifer, a fellow Republican. "Then I realized — it was the name. O'Connor is a whale of a ballot name."

An Irish Catholic surname is among the keys to getting elected to a judgeship in Ohio. But the real question was whether she'd do as the party wanted, especially when it came to the issue of the moment: tort reform.

Over the years, the Ohio Republican Party had grown frustrated with the battle between the legislature and the Supreme Court over tort reform. In 1975, the legislature passed its first law limiting the damages plaintiffs could collect in medical malpractice suits. Sixteen years later, the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the law, deeming such caps unconstitutional. It did so again in 1997, with a Republican majority on the bench no less.

By 2002, there was talk of a new reform. This time, the GOP — whose war chest was well fed by doctors and insurance companies — wanted to ensure that donors won the 25-year struggle. In order to do so, the two available Supreme Court seats had to be filled with yes-men.

"The Republican Party has gotten very sophisticated in screening and looking at the background [of candidates]," says Pfeifer. "It's not unlike handicapping horses at the track."

Though O'Connor hadn't handed down enough decisions to make her politics obvious, she telegraphed all the right messages. "I will not legislate from the bench," she frequently announced.

"She said those magic words," Pfeifer says. "Sometime after I went on the bench, those became the magic words — the code for 'I'll be fine with anything you pass through the legislature' — that the business interests, which contribute heavily on the Republican side, want to hear."

Soon, O'Connor found herself rolling in the cash. In just eight months, she raised $1,736,852, according to campaign finance records. Over $550,000 came from doctors and insurance companies.

Meanwhile, corporate interest groups helped her on the side, running their own campaigns outside of the perimeters of election law. Among them was White Hat Management magnate David Brennan's group, Informed Citizens of Ohio. A proponent of for-profit education, Brennan paid over $2 million for pro-O'Connor TV ads.

Insurance companies also launched ads arguing that excessive damage claims were the reason for rising premiums. They claimed that if O'Connor wasn't elected, bloodsuckers would have a field day, winning outrageous damage claims and driving business out of Ohio.

Labor, teacher, and lawyer groups tried to counter the flood of attack ads, warning that if O'Connor won, justice for the little guy would be no more. But they had nowhere near the money to compete with corporate interests. O'Connor won.

She impressed detractors with her first major decision. In 2003, the court ruled that the state's ban on concealed weapons was constitutional. O'Connor disagreed.

Her opinion jibed with the GOP's pro-gun line. But O'Connor had obviously done her homework, adhering to precedent and carefully interpreting the constitution. "Will O'Connor be the lapdog of corporate Ohio?" asked the Columbus Dispatch. "Not if she researches the law as carefully as she did this time."

She continued to hand down decisions that impressed critics, making it hard to argue that she was simply a GOP bootlicker.

In 2006, she decided against the City of Norwood, which was trying to use eminent domain to seize property from a small-business owner in order to hand it over to a big developer. It was a landmark case, the first in Ohio to limit the range of eminent domain, and one that O'Connor is extremely proud of.

"That was a case that pitted big business developers against the little guy," she says. "Given the perception that the Supreme Court would typically go with big business, you would expect us to side with the big guy. But it was exactly the opposite."

Even when it came to personal injury cases, O'Connor surprised the public.

In 2005, GM worker Douglas Groch's right arm was horribly disfigured after getting caught in a press. But when Groch tried to sue the press' manufacturer, Kard Corporation, he was barred thanks to an Ohio law that says you can't sue a product's manufacturer after 10 years from the purchase date. O'Connor attacked the law's arbitrary time frame and claimed that it "pulled the rug out from under" people such as Groch.

Still, these cases often found themselves in the shadow of her allegiance to doctors and insurers.

In November 2003, O'Connor caught flak for being the featured lunch speaker at a conference sponsored by the Ohio State Medical Association. As doctors munched on spring mix and poached salmon, O'Connor proudly announced: "What I will never forget and always want to recall in sharp focus is the support I received from physicians in the state of Ohio."

A supposedly unbiased judge, O'Connor seemed to be acknowledging her indebtedness to those who placed her on the court. She says otherwise. "There was no message that doctors were in any special or preferred position. There is no evidence to even support that there is some preferential treatment of the medical community. There is nothing that would back that up."

Her record doesn't fully agree.

In 2005, Taft signed a new tort-reform bill. It limited what people could win for the future costs of their injuries, such as medical care and reduced job opportunities, to $350,000.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Steve Stivers from Columbus, argued that the law "was crafted to reduce the threat and financial uncertainty of frivolous lawsuits, while preserving the rights of Ohioans to seek redress through our court systems."

But trial lawyers felt that Stivers was simply screwing patients and workers. "It's not in my best interest for my clients or myself to comment on this, because I'm not allowed to disclose my true feelings," says Michael Kearns, a Cincinnati personal-injury lawyer. "Let's just say that I used to get up in the morning and think I had a purpose. I no longer feel that way."

Shortly after the new law was passed, its constitutionality was raised before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Twenty-four-year-old Melisa Arbino of Cincinnati had suffered a series of deadly blood clots in her brain and lungs as a side effect of using the Ortho Evra birth-control patch. Doctors told Arbino that she'd have to take blood thinners for the rest of her life.

Along with several other victims, Arbino sued Johnson & Johnson, the patch's manufacturer, in federal court and won. But because Arbino was an Ohio resident, she was awarded far fewer damages than the other plaintiffs. That's because federal courts have to follow the laws of the states where the people live.

Federal Judge David Katz sent Arbino's case to the Ohio Supreme Court, asking whether it was constitutional for them to limit her awards. "A New Jersey corporation came to Ohio and sold a dangerous product that harmed people all over the country," Arbino's lawyer argued. "But the people in Ohio will not get full damages, because the legislature has picked an arbitrary number out of the blue without knowing the facts of this case."

But last December, Ohio ruled against Arbino. O'Connor went along.

The diligence she'd shown in previous decisions was suddenly absent. It didn't matter that her own court had twice found such limits unconstitutional before. And though she had previously found time limits arbitrary, she somehow didn't have the same problems when it came to cost.

Justice Pfeifer called out O'Connor and the rest of the bench. "Was there ever any doubt how this case would come out?" he wrote. "This is a sad day for our Constitution and this court. And this is a tragic day for Ohioans, who no longer have any assurance that their Constitution protects the rights they cherish."

When asked about Pfeifer's statement, O'Connor simply sniffs. "Just because they wear a black robe doesn't mean that they corner the market on analysis."

Others seemed to discover that bankrolling O'Connor could pay off.

FirstEnergy gave her $11,600, according to an Ohio Citizen Action report. It would prove to be money well spent.

Between the near-nuclear disaster at its Davis-Besse plant and serving as the catalyst of the worst blackout in U.S. history, FirstEnergy wasn't doing so hot. Things were about to get worse.

In 1999, the state allowed the company to charge customers "transitional costs" to help pay for the building of its nuclear plants. But the state gave the fee an expiration date, barring FirstEnergy from collecting the $20-per-customer charge after 2005.

Afraid of losing the $3 billion that fee would bring in, FirstEnergy asked the Public Utilities Commission whether it could simply relabel the charge as a "rate stabilization" fee and continue collecting. PUCO agreed, though it was against the law.

By 2004, the Ohio Consumer Commission had sued FirstEnergy and PUCO on behalf of customers.

Just months after the lawsuit was announced, FirstEnergy CEO Anthony Alexander held a fund-raiser at his home for the Supreme Court justices. Among the attendees was O'Connor. That night, Alexander raised $40,500, which was immediately dumped into five judges' coffers.

Citizen Action asked those judges to recuse themselves from the FirstEnergy case. They all refused, including O'Connor. "I didn't feel the need," she says. "Just because someone contributed to my campaign? I don't think that's the criteria."

Even Pfeifer, who never received a penny from FirstEnergy, agrees that it would be ridiculous for five justices to recuse themselves from a case solely based on campaign contributions. "That's an impossibility," he says. "You would have no one left to decide cases, or you'd have most of the important cases written by visiting judges. That just can't work."

Still, Pfeifer expects those justices to remain impartial. But according to the Consumer Commission, that's not what happened.

The Supreme Court ruled that FirstEnergy was allowed to continue collecting the fee, despite what the law said.

O'Connor takes offense at the notion that FirstEnergy's contributions influenced her decision. She claims it isn't her fault that businesses give her money. Her essential defense: Don't hate the player — hate the game.

"You are presuming that there is some other way of electing judges in Ohio other than to wage a campaign," she says. "There are over 100 judges up for election this year. None of them say 'Don't give me money. I don't want to get my message out; I just want people to vote based on the sound of my name.'"

O'Connor isn't an anomaly. When The New York Times ran its 2006 story, it cited Terrence O'Donnell as the justice most likely to rule on behalf of donors. (O'Donnell refused comment for this story.) In fact, no one on the bench has clean hands.

"Part of the reason there is a lot of national focus on the Ohio Supreme Court is that those campaigns got so remarkably expensive so remarkably fast," says Jesse Rutledge, a spokesman for Justice at Stake, a Washington think tank. "Ohio has been at the forefront of a national trend of big-money judicial races."

While Pfeifer remembers raising around $400,000 for his race in 1998, just two years later, candidates like Chief Justice Thomas Moyer were raising as much as $1.5 million. Justice Evelyn Stratton raised $1.9 million for her bid in 2002. And O'Donnell raised more than $3.6 million between 2004 and 2006 alone.

In fact, all the Supreme Court justices have waged multimillion-dollar campaigns since 2000, with the exception of Pfeifer, who ran in 2004 on less than $80,000. "I've been lucky," he says. "I've been elected on the cheap four times. That's because I really predated the big money."

Part of the problem is that big donors have learned to circumvent election laws. By creating their own political action committees or giving directly to parties, they can indirectly dump unlimited amounts into campaigns.

"Money in politics is becoming a shell game," says Rutledge. "Things get moved around, and you can't necessarily see what's going where."

Judges are also aggressive fund-raisers, often shaking down lawyers for donations and pushing tickets to soirees. When Scene called a sampling of lawyers who had argued before the Supreme Court in 2007, most said they'd received invitations to O'Connor's fund-raisers. "It's not unusual for law firms and lawyers to receive those," says Chuck Ticknor, a lawyer with Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, one of the bigger firms in Ohio. "We get them all the time. It's routine for big law firms to give money to both sides."

But what about those lawyers who don't shell out? David Pheils, a medical-malpractice lawyer from Perrysburg, says he has never given to a Supreme Court race and never will. His stubbornness has cost him dearly.

"Based on the cases that I have attempted to take up to the Supreme Court, I'd have to say that Chief Justice Moyer and others are influenced by their supporters," Pheils says. "I don't feel like we get a fair hearing. They do not appreciate their role as a protector of the public."

Rutledge agrees with O'Connor that a lot of judges are simply trapped in a bad system, playing by the only rules available. Still, he's not letting them off the hook. "It's time to start thinking about changing those rules," Rutledge says. "[People like O'Connor] should be speaking out against that system. Stop playing the victim, and start being an advocate for change."

Since judges are unlikely to turn down money, the American Bar Association is hoping that they'll at least try to avoid the perception that they're bought. Last year, the group asked each state to enact strict recusal standards so that judges wouldn't sit on cases where there was a clear conflict of interest. Ohio has yet to act. And if O'Connor feels victimized by a system that makes her appear corrupt, she's done little to combat the perception.

In just the first two months of 2008, O'Connor has already raised $209,000, according to campaign finance reports. Most of that came from doctors and insurance companies. Her opponent, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Russo hasn't filed papers yet, but he'll surely be facing an uphill fight.

"That is what has tilted right now," says Pfeifer. "It is very hard for a Democrat to get elected, because of the corporate money that comes in. The Dems can't match that. The unions have been reined in. That's what has made the court more conservative."

(Russo refused comment for this story.)

O'Connor was recently given the opportunity to recuse herself from a case in which she has a clear conflict of interest.

In 1996, Smart Media, a Virginia company, developed a handheld bar-code scanner. It took its invention to Akron's Telxon Corporation, which promised to finance the manufacturing and marketing of the product. But after two years and millions of dollars in development, Smart Media was left without any financing. Telxon hadn't kept its part of the deal. The two companies ended up in court.

In 2003, a Summit County jury awarded Smart Media $212 million — the largest award in county history. But two years later, appeals court Judge William Batchelder reversed the jury's decision. Smart Media's lawyers soon discovered that Batchelder had received hefty campaign contributions from Telxon's CEO, Robert Meyerson ["Cash Machine," December 12, 2007].

Smart Media is now asking the Ohio Supreme Court to reverse Batchelder's decision, based on his clear conflict of interest. The company also asked O'Connor to recuse herself. After all, Meyerson has been one of her greatest contributors too.

When she was running for Lieutenant Governor, O'Connor received $52,000 directly from members of the Meyerson family, according to campaign finance records. That doesn't include the $212,000 Meyerson also gave to the Summit County GOP, which in turn gave O'Connor $218,000.

Meyerson also contributed $215,000 to the Republican National State Elections Committee, former Congressman Tom DeLay's elaborate laundering system, for which he was accused of violating election laws in 2005. The committee then gave the money to the Ohio GOP, which in turn donated $176,000 to O'Connor. (Meyerson did not return Scene's phone calls.)

But despite getting nearly a half-million from Telxon's CEO, she still deemed herself neutral enough to rule on his case. "There would be no reason for me to recuse myself," she says.

Greg Melick, Smart Media's lawyer, compares O'Connor's decision to the famed Coingate case, in which Republican fund-raiser Tom Noe lost $50 million in workers' comp funds.

When Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles first asked to see the state's investment records, the state refused to turn them over, arguing that they were "trade secrets." The case landed before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The entire bench recused itself, citing Noe's donations to all the justices. Visiting judges ordered the records be made public. Noe was eventually sentenced to 18 years for theft, money-laundering, forgery, and corrupt activity.

But the difference was that Noe had become a toxic name in Ohio politics, and Republicans were scrambling to flee any connection. As Melick points out, "Justice O'Connor recused herself in those cases after only having received $3,500 in direct campaign contributions from Mr. and Mrs. Noe."

Meyerson gave far more, but since the Smart Media case wasn't in the headlines, O'Connor had no risk of political fallout.

The justice claims she doesn't even know how much Meyerson gave her. "He donated $2,500 or something," she says. Once again, her voice begins to fill with agitation.

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