BY: JAKE ZUCKERMAN AND NICK EVANS – Ohio Capital Journal
Columbus, Ohio – A ranking House Republican left open the possibility of impeaching the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, which this week rejected Republicans’ third proposed legislative redistricting map.
During a private GOP caucus phone call Thursday, House Majority Leader Bill Seitz and Rep. Jon Cross voiced support for impeaching Justice Maureen O’Connor, according to a person on the call. O’Connor, also a Republican, has acted as a swing vote on two high-stakes redistricting cases and sided with Democrats on the bench finding the maps disproportionately favored Republicans in violation of the Ohio Constitution.
Through a spokesman, Seitz, a longtime Cincinnati lawmaker and influential caucus member, declined to comment on caucus discussions but said Friday “nothing has been decided, and that all options are on the table.”
Cross, a Kenton Republican, declined comment, noting “we (I) don’t comment about caucus meetings.”
The call, held Thursday afternoon, lasted about 20 minutes, the source on the call said. In it, Seitz presented an argument that included old precedent for the House moving to impeach a justice after an unfavorable court decision.
When Cross offered what was described as a more fiery argument for impeachment, House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, ended the call, according to the source. Cupp’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the caucus call or his position on impeachment.
Cupp spent six years on the Ohio Supreme Court bench, serving alongside O’Connor for his entire tenure.
On Facebook Thursday, hours before the caucus call, Cross wrote “enough is enough,” and that O’Connor had violated Ohio law related to altering the time, place or manner of an election.
The claim about Seitz’ support marks the most senior legislator in favor of the possibility of impeaching O’Connor. Also Thursday, Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, a committee chairman, said on social media “it’s time to impeach Maureen O’Connor now.
The hubbub comes in response to the court’s redistricting ruling late Wednesday evening. A four-justice majority found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the most recent maps violated the constitution, particularly the provisions prohibiting partisan favoritism. While uncertainty remains, the ruling could force lawmakers to either move the May primary election date or create a second primary election date for non-statewide races. In a letter this week, Secretary of State Frank LaRose indicated the plan for now is to proceed with two separate primary elections.
The decision on whether to pursue impeachment won’t be up to him, but Gov. Mike DeWine advised against the move Friday.
“This is an extraordinary measure to take,” he said. “I think we don’t want to go down that pathway, because we disagree with a decision by a court, because we disagree with a decision by an individual judge or justice. Not a good idea.”
Three House Republicans publicly floated the concept of impeaching DeWine himself in 2020 for his COVID-19 response. The idea went nowhere.
The Supreme Court is currently reviewing a second, GOP-proposed congressional redistricting map after overturning the first effort on constitutional grounds.
Not long before the redistricting fiasco, O’Connor publicly broke from Republicans on judicial integrity. The Ohio Republican Party, with the 2020 presidential election looming, blasted a lower court’s ruling on election procedures and Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye as a “partisan judge.” In an unusual move, O’Connor called the statement “disgraceful” and “deceitful” and emphasized the concept of judicial independence.
“This is a blatant and unfounded attack on the independence of the Ohio judiciary,” she wrote.
“To accuse a judge of deciding the matter before him on partisan politics and further accuse the judge of ‘obstruction of his judicial responsibility’ is without merit and is meant to further the false narrative that judges have no conscience, no legal responsibilities, and no capacity to decide what the law is beyond the raw politics of the issue.”
An impeachment would be an extreme, though not unprecedented reaction. In fact, the Ohio Legislative Service Commission notes all eight impeachments in Ohio’s history were against judges. For instance, in 1808, members of the Ohio House grew angry enough at a ruling by Justice George Tod that they sought his impeachment. He survived via one vote in the state Senate, according to the court. Justice Calvin Pease was impeached and acquitted as well around the same time.
The Ohio Supreme Court gave state lawmakers until March 28 to submit a new proposal. The Ohio Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan panel of statewide and legislative officials, is scheduled to meet Saturday.
Morgan Trau contributed to this story.
JAKE ZUCKERMAN is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.
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NICK EVANS has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.
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