Thursday, September 28, 2023
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Reprimand of Judge Over Tricky Button Upheld

(CN) - A judge who won back her seat with help from a badge misrepresenting herself as an incumbent candidate should receive a public reprimand, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

Colleen Mary O'Toole served as a judge on the 11th District Court of Appeals in 2004. She lost the 2010 election and wrapped up her term in 2011.

During her 2012 election campaign, O'Toole wore a name badge calling herself "Colleen Mary O'Toole, Judge, 11th District Court of Appeals."

She also called herself "Judge O'Toole" on her website. O'Toole won the election and began a six-year term in February 2013.

A grievance James Davis filed with the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline soon prompted a panel to find that O'Toole had violated judicial rules against conveying false or misleading information during an election.

In addition to a public reprimand, the commission fined O'Toole $1,000 and ordered her to pay the attorneys' fees that Davis had incurred.

A ruling that the Ohio Supreme Court issued on the case Wednesday notes that "the panel also expressed great concern that O'Toole had insisted, even at her disciplinary hearing, that she remained a judge despite the fact that she had lost her bid for re-election and her term had ended."

O' Toole did partly persuade the Ohio Supreme Court on Wedesday that the First Amendment protected her conduct. It said a portion of the Judicial Conduct rules that prohibits deceiving or misleading information was unconstitutional.

"This portion of the rule does not leave room for innocent misstatements or honest, truthful statements made in good faith but that could deceive some listeners," Justice Judith Lanzinger wrote for the court.

The language forces candidates to determine whether their statements could be views as misleading or deceptive, according to the ruling.

"As a result, candidates will often choose to avoid adverse action by remaining silent even when they have good reason to believe that what they want to say is truthful," Lanzinger added.

In clearing O'Toole with regard to the statements on the Ashtabula County Republican Party website, the court found that she was not necessarily responsible for the content that made her appear like a sitting judge.

The public reprimand of O'Toole must stand, however, based on her display of the campaign button, and her refusal to back down on that point before the panel hearing.

"By repeatedly calling herself a judge when she was not, O'Toole undermined public confidence in the judiciary as a whole," Lanzinger wrote. "Such misconduct injures both the public and the judiciary from the moment the lie is uttered, and that injury cannot be undone with corrective speech."

Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote in partial dissent that his colleagues should have cut in half award of $2,500 in attorneys' fees for Davis, a man he noted was "working as the alter ego of O'Toole's opponent, Mary Jane Trapp."

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