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Newest Ohio Supreme Court Justice: Voters are Sick of Money in Political Races

Legal News Reporter

Published: January 4, 2013

William O’Neill, recently elected to a seat on the bench of the Ohio Supreme Court, sees his election as an indicator that voters would like to reject the influence that money has in Ohio’s political system.

O’Neill’s campaign theme in the 2012 election was “Money and Judges Don’t Mix.”

“The world didn’t believe that this system would work, “said O’Neill, referring to the fact that he ran his campaign without accepting any campaign contributions and without paying for advertising. “I had doubts myself. But I walked into a perfect storm this year. It is a nice position to be in.”

O’Neill had run for other public offices before—winning some and losing some. He was elected and reelected to a position on the bench of the 11th District Court of Appeals, where he served for ten years. He also previously lost races for Congress, and two prior attempts at the Ohio Supreme Court.

But 2012 was the year, said O’Neill, the voters spoke out clearly about the mixture of money and politics, and, particularly, of money and the elected judiciary.

He credits, he said, “the United States Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in Citizens United” for raising the level of money in politics to such a level that it became repugnant to the voters.

“The amount of money spent in Ohio for the Senate and Presidential campaigns exceeded $100 million,” he said. “I know that I, for one, felt unsettled by the barrage of television commercials assaulting me in my living room. After I saw all of the commercials, I felt like I had done something wrong. I’m sure that this feeling was shared by all Ohioans.

“In the end,” he said, “no one was watching them.”

That $100 million estimation was a bit low, as it turned out. According to The National Journal and CNN, the total spending of the campaigns, plus PAC spending, in Ohio totaled: $67 million for the Senate seat won by Sherrod Brown; and, in the presidential campaign here in the Buckeye State, approximately $100 million from the Romney side and $92 million-plus from the Obama side. That was just Ohio, and as of November 4th.

Regarding his race, O’Neill, a Democrat who was running against Republican incumbent Robert Cupp, said that, “I knew that a million dollars was going to be spent against me in the first month.” The common wisdom was that O’Neill, not spending one penny on his campaign, would not have a chance against that kind of war chest.

But then O’Neill said, “the Republican Party came to my rescue.”

A television ad appeared that seemed to want to imply that O’Neill, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Pediatric Emergency Room nurse, in addition to being a lawyer, had made a decision that favored a rapist.

That ad, said O’Neill, “was the biggest single mistake in Ohio political history. They ended up shooting their own candidate in the foot.”

That ad earned the wrath of the Ohio State Bar Association, among other organizations, and, in the end, Cupp repudiated it. But the ad continued to run, costing $750 million in the last weeks of the campaign, said O’Neill.

In the meantime, he said, his campaign website, oneillforjustice.com, got 50,000 hits in the last month of the campaign. “That was without precedent,” said O’Neill. “It was because of the message, and because (the Ohio Republican Party) refused to pull back on that ad.”

In the end, Cupp’s official campaign raised $658,863. O’Neill’s campaign raised $4464, almost all of which came out of the candidate’s pocket (source: judicialselection.com).

After the election, numerous Ohio newspapers editorialized that both O’Neill and Sharon Kennedy, who also beat an incumbent for a Supreme Court seat, won their elections because their names were more recognizable that the candidates that they were running against.

“That is baloney,” said O’Neill, at least as far as his own campaign was concerned.

“I ran twice and lost before, and I had the same name. What really happened was that the people of Ohio got really tired of money in politics, and that’s why I was elected. Even the Chief Justice has said that we have to re-do judicial elections.”

Now that the election is over, O’Neill brings considerable appellate court experience with him to Columbus. Even with that experience, he knows that it is a, “big job. I am really looking forward to getting there.”