Senators Take First Step In Removing O'Neill From Supreme Court, But House Likely Won't Vote On It

Jan 17, 2018

State Senators have taken the first step toward removing Ohio Supreme Court justice Bill O’Neill, who has announced he’s a Democratic candidate for governor and has picked a running mate but hasn’t officially filed paperwork to run. But the move seems to be at a dead stop in the legislature for now.

In October, Justice Bill O’Neill made a formal announcement in his hometown of Chagrin Falls, saying he would be a candidate for governor. Since that announcement, he’s selected a running mate but hasn’t filed his official paperwork to run. But he has turned in his resignation to Gov. John Kasich, who will pick his replacement. For weeks, there had been talk that lawmakers would try to remove him from the bench, but when O’Neill said he would resign on January 26, some thought that was the end of it. But Senate President Larry Obhof (R-Medina) said it’s still important. He spoke on the Senate floor about the resolution himself, saying O’Neill needs to be summoned to appear before state lawmakers who want to ask him about a Facebook post about his sex life, and about his campaign. “There is a bipartisan understanding throughout the state of Ohio that this type of candidacy and this type of behavior from a sitting justice is not acceptable.”

The leader of the Senate’s Democrats, Kenny Yuko (D-Richmond Heights), said the whole point of the resolution is moot, since O’Neill says he’ll be off the bench January 26. “If we were to pass something today and get it to him tomorrow, he would have 10 days to respond. He’s leaving us in eight days. He’s leaving us in eight days.”

But Bill Coley (R-Liberty Township) said that the vote was necessary because O’Neill is staying on the bench "because of some disturbed reason".  He added: “We need to make sure that this justice leaves office and pursues his political ambitions whichever way he does decide to pursue those, but that he does not remain a member of the Court and prejudice the fair and equitable branch of government that the judiciary has a reputation of becoming. The litigants of Ohio deserve better,” Coley said.

Sen. Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood) opposed the resolution, saying that the ban on judges running for partisan office is a rule adopted by the courts – a separate branch of government. “We are trumping – this resolution here is trumping the judicial process and it’s my understanding that Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is looking into the matter. Let this issue be dealt with by the judicial process because it is their role, not a role of the Ohio General Assembly," Skindell said.

Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) will face O’Neill in the primary, and has called for O’Neill to resign. He said on the floor that he questions the timing of this resolution, but he supports it. “I feel like there are some politics played here today because he’s already agreed to resign. But when you have to vote yes or no, I would choose to vote yes today because I don’t want judges running for office from the bench.”

Matt Huffman (R-Lima) noted that this resolution was not an impeachment of a sitting justice, but a specific provision of the law directed at state legislators. “And essentially gives the legislature the authority to remove judges because the legislature thinks it’s the right thing to do. Now that’s a pretty big hammer, and that’s why you have to have two-thirds of each house to do it.”

In the end, all Senate Republicans voted yes. Schiavoni was the only Democrat who supported it. But the idea is apparently stopped for now. For it to proceed, the House would have to pass it too, and Republican Speaker Cliff Rosenberger says he has no plans to take it up.