COLUMBUS — A secretive business-friendly group with ties to ex-JobsOhio boss Mark Kvamme is pouring money into the re-election campaign of Judith French, the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the opinion that tossed out a constitutional challenge to Jobs Ohio.
American Freedom Builders, a tax-exempt organization that does not have to reveal its donors, is paying for a new TV ad in the hotly contested high court race. Kvamme headed JobsOhio and served on its board, until he stepped down in 2012.
“This controversy explains why we must have laws that require the public to know who is paying for expensive campaign commercials. Voters should be able to follow the money so that they can consider the source of information,’’ said Sam Gresham, Chair of Common Cause Ohio. “Mr. Kvamme: Where is the money coming and why have you been so unwilling to answer questions about it?’’
JobsOhio is the public-private economic development group lawmakers created at the behest of Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich.
ProgressOhio filed the constitutional challenge to JobsOhio, and the case received support from both political parties.
“Once again the murky relationships of Mr. Kvamme, JobsOhio and the government leads to the appearance of a conflict,” said ProgressOhio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg. “The fact that Justice French authored the JobsOhio decision — which was Mr. Kvamme’s baby – and she is now benefitting from Mr. Kvamme’s new group — is unseemly to me.”
A timeline detailing the key events of this story is available here.
French, endorsed by the Republican Party, faces a strong challenge from Judge John O’Donnell of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
The pro-French ads come as she is under fire for giving a speech in which she described herself as a Republican and the “backstop” for votes cast by state lawmakers. ““Whatever the governor does, whatever your state representative, your state senator does, whatever they do, we are the ones that will decide whether it is constitutional,’’ French told a recent Republican gathering.
Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for Common Cause Ohio, noted that the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct states that “[j]udicial candidates have a special obligation to ensure the judicial system is viewed as fair, impartial and free from partisanship.”
“If she is re-elected, at a minimum these comments could call her judgment into question,’’ Turcer said. “It also could put her in the position of having to recuse herself from cases with an overly partisan bent.’’
Turcer pointed to a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal that held the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a judge to recuse himself not only when actual bias has been demonstrated or when the judge has an economic interest in the outcome of the case, but also when “extreme facts” create a “probability of bias”. The case made its way to the US Supreme Court because Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship created a non-profit corporation ”For the Sake of the Children”, which he contributed over $3 million and then used the non-profit to run political advertisements against a West Virginia Supreme Court justice unfriendly to Massey’s interests.
According to an analysis released last week by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, over $9.1 million has been spent on TV advertising to influence state Supreme Court races this cycle. Statistics on Ohio spending through October 27thare available online here.
Justice French is a member of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission.