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Columbus Dispatch - Union wants Ohio Supreme Court's Judith French off case, alleging bias

Columbus Dispatch - January 29, 2015

By Randy Ludlow

Ohio's largest state-worker union accuses state Supreme Court Justice Judith L. French of showing potential bias in favor of fellow Republican officeholders in remarks she made at a campaign rally last fall.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association filed a motion on Tuesday asking French to step aside from participating in the appeal of its case against Gov. John Kasich and other state GOP officials.

Kasich and others are appealing a review ordered by a state appeals court to determine whether sections of a past state budget should be thrown out as unconstitutional.

Affidavits from union attorneys cite an article on Dispatch.com reporting remarks that French made at an Oct. 25 Republican campaign rally in Delaware County that also featured Kasich.

French attracted Democratic objections when she said: "I am a Republican, and you should vote for me. ... Let me tell you something, the Ohio Supreme Court is the backstop for all those other votes you are going to cast" for GOP candidates.

"So, forget all those other votes if you don't keep the Ohio Supreme Court conservative," French said.

French's remarks created the appearance that she "will not be free from bias and partisanship favoring the legislative programs and state officials," said the OCSEA affidavits.

The affidavits also cited French's campaign appearances with Kasich and others as he and other statewide incumbents worked to help ensure her election to a six-year term on the court.

French, who had been appointed to the court by Kasich in 2013, declined to comment on Tuesday. Court rules require her to file a written response stating whether she will recuse herself from hearing the case.

After her pre-election remarks drew fire, she said she was speaking of her conservative judicial philosophy, not political affiliation.

The Franklin County Court of Appeals agreed with the union and the liberal nonprofit group ProgressOhio last year that lawmakers violated the Ohio Constitution's "one subject/one bill" provision by inserting a prison-privatization measure in the 2012-13 budget.

The appellate judges ordered a county Common Pleas Court judge to review the budget and strike " fraudulent" sections that violate the one-subject requirement, prompting the appeal by Kasich and other GOP officeholders.

The budget addressed such diverse matters as abortion restrictions, teacher merit pay, a gambling hotline, barber licenses and court testimony by coroners.

The state's appeal argues that past rulings have upheld the legality of the budget containing a laundry list of money-related policy changes. It also contends that inviting judicial review of lawmakers' choices violates the separation of powers.

The three-judge panel ruled that the prison-privatization language championed by Kasich and GOP legislators was inserted in the budget for "no rational reason" in violation of the constitutional one-subject mandate.

The section is designed to prevent legislators from trading votes on each other's bills and to prevent "riders" from being attached to legislation that is sure to pass.

As a result of the budget law, the state sold the Lake Erie Correctional Facility in Conneaut to Corrections Corp. of America for

$72 million and allowed another company to run the North Central Correctional Institution in Marion.

The union seeks damages for employees who lost jobs and invalidation of the private-prison contracts, returning both prisons to state control or ownership.

The state Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for May 20.

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