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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Nonpartisan Judicial Election Law Upheld

(CN) - An Ohio law prohibiting the printing of judicial candidates' political affiliations on the general election ballot is constitutional, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

In Ohio, judicial candidates are first selected through partisan primary elections. They may also affiliate with a political party during their campaign.

But by law, the state's general election ballot may not show the candidates' political affiliation next to their name.

The Ohio Democratic Party, three candidates for the bench in the 2010 election, and a labor organization, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

The Democratic Party presented evidence that many voters abstain from voting in nonpartisan judicial races because they are not informed about the candidates.

In the 2008 general election, approximately 30 percent of people who voted did not cast a vote in a race for state Supreme Court Justice, it said.

An expert witness opined that the voter drop-off in judicial races is caused in part by Ohio elections' nonpartisan nature.

But a federal judge found for the state, ruling that the law serves an important interest in minimizing partisanship in judicial elections, even if the state's interest is "half-hearted at best."

The judge noted that Ohio "steeps the judicial selection process in partisan politics everywhere but in the voting booth on election day," but said the Party's burden was ultimately not severe enough to outweigh the state's interest. (Emphasis in original.)

The Sixth Circuit affirmed Thursday.

"The burden on the plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights is minimal because political parties and judicial candidates remain free to provide, and voters remain free to receive, a plethora of information regarding whether a given candidate affiliates with or is endorsed by a particular political party," U.S. Circuit Judge John Rogers said, writing for the three-judge panel.

A political party has no right to use the ballot itself to educate voters, the court said, and the challenged law does not impede a party's ability to spread its message to voters by any other means.

"The voter drop off of which plaintiffs complain may just as readily indicate that Ohio's election scheme is fulfilling its stated purpose: Fewer votes are cast solely in reliance on the judicial candidates' party affiliations than would be cast if the elections were partisan, thereby reducing partisanship in judicial elections," Rogers said. "The votes that the plaintiffs complain that they are losing are almost by definition votes that would have been based on only the candidates' party affiliations - the very thing that Ohio is attempting to minimize."

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