Lawyer group stirs anger wading into politics

Association’s opposition to ballot proposal outraged many of its 26,000 members

By Julie Carr Smyth
Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio State Bar Association, the state’s largest professional organization of lawyers, usually stays above the fray of election politics.

The group, which represents more than 26,000 lawyers and judges, generally keeps to such political activities as reviewing the qualifications of the latest batch of judicial candidates or urging decency when nasty political advertising maligns the legal profession.

But this year was different.

For the first time in 25 years, the association waded into a politically heated ballot battle, this time over legislative and congressional redistricting. It had paid $236,000 to a political consultant and $5,000 to a research and communications firm as of late October, state filings showed.

The association’s decision to urge opposition to Issue 2 outraged many members, sparking about 200 complaint emails and what amounted to protest votes by some local bar associations.

Critics tie the unusual move in part to the fact OSBA’s new president, Hamilton County Appellate Judge Patrick F. Fischer, is also an active politician.

Fischer, a Harvard Law School graduate from Cincinnati, successfully ran for re-election this fall, on the same ballot with the redistricting measure. He also applied Friday for the Ohio Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.

That vacancy will be filled by Republican Gov. John Kasich, whose party currently controls the map-making process that Issue 2 sought to overhaul.

“It’s an erosion of the moral authority, the high ground I thought the Ohio State Bar was on,” said past OSBA president Gary Leppla. “It diminishes the organization, and I regret this has all happened so suddenly this year, that the leadership has been susceptible to political influences possibly.”

Issue 2 was a voluminous proposal that was criticized widely. Its wording was seen as ungainly, its steps for setting up a 12-member citizen map-drawing commission considered cumbersome, and the legal loopholes it left open many. OSBA was far from the only group that opposed it, and voters roundly defeated it this month.

The association cited its primary concern with Issue 2 as the proposal that appellate judges would have a role in winnowing down the list of commission nominees, a job they thought would place judges under undue political pressure. The board also viewed the Ohio Supreme Court’s role in settling map disputes as blurring the line between the legislative and judiciary branches of government.

OSBA Assistant Executive Director Bill Weisenberg, who ran the campaign against Issue 2, said the bar association’s opposition was consistent with its mission of defending the legal profession and the independence of the judiciary. The last time the organization got involved in a ballot campaign was the 1987 fight over the merit selection of judges.

“I don’t think it ever became a Republican-or-Democrat issue within the association at all,” Weisenberg said. “I’ve never sat down and put an R or a D or an I (for independent) next to our board members, but there are 25 and it’s a very diverse group of people. They voted unanimously to oppose this.”

A bar committee could not recommend one of the Ohio Republican Party’s justice candidates, Sharon Kennedy, this fall. It also blasted a GOP-backed political ad accusing Democratic justice candidate Bill O’Neill of sympathy for rapists. Both Kennedy and O’Neill won.

Leppla said the bar has worked hard to establish a diversity of voices on its board, and taking a position on Issue 2 — strongly supported by Democrats and unions, strongly opposed by Republicans — jeopardized that.

“It’s just a colossal setback because it’s exclusive rather than inclusive,” he said.

Fischer said he placed his name in the running for Stratton’s Supreme Court seat on Friday. But he said any aspirations he might have for a court appointment had nothing to do with the bar association’s

“There’s no connection,” he said. “The state bar’s been involved in politics since its beginnings, in the ‘20s, in the ‘50s, in the ‘80s. This is nothing unusual.”