O'Neill rules in favor of high moral standards

A smiling child leaves the Hillcrest Hospital Emergency Department, proudly holding a popsicle in his hand for young bravery. He has just been treated by pediatric nurse William M. O’Neill — a man who believes his work with patients at Hillcrest has helped him to discern what is important in life. One of the important things, he said in an interview, is always to do what is morally right, even if the law permits otherwise.

This is one of the main reasons O’Neill said he is running for a position on the Ohio Supreme Court. O’Neill, a Democratic candidate, said he believes that the way we elect judges in Ohio is fundamentally wrong. He argues that candidates should not take monetary contributions during the election process and subsequently sit on a case involving the contributor. This is why his campaign slogan reads, “Money and Judges Don’t Mix. Never Have, Never Will,” and he does not accept any campaign contributions. 

Despite his current occupation, O’Neill does have many years of legal experience. He served as a judge on the 11th District Court of Appeals from 1997 to 2007, where he decided around 3,000 cases and sat by assignment on the Supreme Court. Prior to that, O'Neill was an Assistant Attorney General for Ohio from 1984 to 1996, representing the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the Ohio Industrial Commission

According to O’Neill, the issue of campaign contributions differentiates him from his opponent, Republican Supreme Court candidate Robert Cupp. “We are both qualified,” O’Neill states, “but he takes money and I don’t.” Cupp is not breaking the law by adjudicating cases in which one or more parties has made a donation to his campaign, O’Neill clarifies.

Cupp declined several requests, by email and telephone, to respond to O’Neill’s allegations.

Heidi Robertson, associate dean and professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, comments on the issue from a broader perspective. She agrees that money and judges don’t mix, but contends that it is a hard problem to solve.

“State judges in Ohio are elected and the process is quite political. Some think it's a good thing, other think it's bad,” Robertson said. “There have been panels and groups working to depoliticize judicial elections.”

In August, O’Neill filed a complaint with disciplinary counsel Jonathan Coughlan, documenting one such contribution. He filed papers showing that Cupp accepted a donation of $6,300 from FirstEnergy subsidiary Ohio Edison while involved in adjudicating a case that involved the company.

O’Neill said it is nearly impossible to avoid the appearance of impropriety in this type of situation. He describes his opponent as “a really good guy who is doing some really bad things.”

When asked how his campaign is faring without any donations, O’Neill mentions his use of the Internet. Social networking has entered the political arena, and the Democratic candidate modestly suggests that he is the master of it in this particular race. With a Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube video and website, O’Neill excitedly reports how powerful these tools can be, citing the fact that his website has received no less than 900 views per day since Oct. 4.

In addition to digital campaigning, O’Neill has recently printed 100,000 pamphlets. He hopes to distribute these pamphlets in at least 40 counties. He notes that the pamphlets are substantially smaller and less glossy than many others on the campaign trail, but he paid for them himself.

O’Neill also believes it is imperative for candidates to perform community service. He has volunteered four times with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, served on a board to support the Chagrin Falls veterans of war and their families, and coached youth baseball. He also said he believes the Supreme Court should consider pro bono work as a requirement for lawyers.

So far, O’Neill is ahead in the polls. He has also received a rating of 3.5 out of a possible 4.0 on Judge4Yourself, a website providing independent, non-partisan merit scores on judicial candidates. His opponent Cupp has the same score. The scores are decided by four cooperating bar associations and dozens of experienced lawyers, who often work daily in the Cuyahoga County courts. They base their decisions, according to the website, on the candidate’s “integrity, knowledge, experience, diligence and community understanding, and on every candidate’s ability to be impartial, even-tempered and respectful to the people who must come to court.”

The Supreme Court of Ohio is the “court of last resort” for many cases that originate in this state, although some appeals can go on to the U.S. Supreme Court. It hears all appeals of cases in which the death penalty has been imposed by a trial court, and final appeals on matters related to the Ohio Constitution. The court's website, at www.supremecourt.ohio.gov, explains more about its role.

Whatever the results on Nov. 6, O’Neill said he has genuinely enjoyed this campaign. He concludes, “I’m just going to put my faith in God and wait a few more weeks.” 

Lisa Perry

Lisa Perry is a communication student at John Carroll University. 

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Volume 5, Issue 12, Posted 12:50 PM, 10.29.2012