Candidate O’Neill must leave court

Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill, who last month announced his intention to run for Ohio Governor, should resign his post.

O’Neill, who served as an Appeals Court Judge for 10 years on the Warren-based 11th District Court of Appeals, says for now he’ll recuse himself from all new cases on the Supreme Court. We believe, based on the code of conduct that all Ohio judges must follow, that decision is simply is not enough.

Politicking while serving on any judicial bench — let alone the Ohio Supreme Court – puts in risk the guarantee that the court is fair and independent, and presents an appearance of impropriety among residents and certainly among those involved in cases pending before the high court.

Specifically, Ohio’s Code of Judicial Conduct says this: “A judge shall resign from office when he or she becomes a candidate in a primary or general election for a nonjudicial office.”

O’Neill announced his intentions to run for governor late last month, and the issue of his judicial post was immediately raised. In response, he insists he has violated no rules, and, in fact, is not yet a candidate because he has not yet officially filed his petitions. He said he recused himself last week from any new cases but plans to continue work on 99 ongoing cases until leaving the court nearer to the Feb. 7 candidate filing deadline.

Although his petitions have not yet been filed, his candidacy is clear and official by his words. His social media posts also are clear in his candidacy.

When asked, Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor cautioned O’Neill to consider his future course of conduct in terms of his oath of office and judicial ethics rules. O’Connor, a Republican, added that she saw no mechanism for the court to require O’Neill to recuse himself from pending cases, even if they might present a conflict.

That’s a serious problem.

Last week, Republican lawmaker Niraj Antani, a state representative from Miamisburg, said he filed initial paperwork aimed at the removal of O’Neill, a Democrat.

Antani said O’Neill has committed a “clear violation” of the judicial code of conduct by politicking while serving on the court. He said O’Neill has taken positions on a number of partisan issues that jeopardize the judiciary’s operations as a fair and independent body.

While the move appears to be politically motivated — especially considering that O’Neill is the only Democrat currently holding any statewide elected office — the fact remains that O’Neill’s duty to the Code of Conduct is paramount to any partisan membership.

O’Neill must decide now, not wait to see which other candidates throw their hats in to the ring. He has announced his intention to run, which disqualifies him from the right to hold his Supreme Court seat. His continued service on the bench will shake the public’s trust in the judiciary. He must step down now.

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