COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Democrats say a GOP appeals court judge faces a monumental conflict of interest if elected to the state Supreme Court next month because his father is Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
The party says Cincinnati appeals court Judge Pat DeWine would have to frequently excuse himself since his father — as the state’s top lawyer — often has cases before the court, even if he isn’t personally arguing them.
“Any matter where the Attorney General is a party, the justice must disqualify himself,” attorney Jonathan Coughlan said in an Oct. 17 opinion letter provided to the Ohio Democratic Party at the request of party chair David Pepper.
Coughlan once worked for the Supreme Court and, for more than 15 years, brought disciplinary charges involving misconduct against lawyers and judges. He is now in private practice.
Pat DeWine and his supporters disagree, and say he received assurances from the top staffer for the Supreme Court’s judicial ethics board when his father was elected in 2010 that no such conflict existed for most cases as long as his father wasn’t in court.
That staffer, Jonathan Marshall, said Wednesday that exceptions could also include cases — such as death penalty appeals — in which Mike DeWine has taken a public position.
Pat DeWine also notes that Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor appointed him to sit on a Youngstown appeals court case in 2014 in which his father’s office was involved, a move she wouldn’t have made if there were such a conflict.
“You will not have an ethical conflict and will not have to disqualify yourself in a case where someone other than Mike DeWine at the Attorney General’s office is directly representing a party in a case before you,” Michael Close, an attorney with decades of experience representing lawyers in ethics cases, told Pat DeWine in his own opinion letter Tuesday.
The stakes involve more than judicial ethics. Each year, the Ohio Supreme Court rules on issues affecting Ohioans in multiple ways, including the constitutionality of school funding methods, limits on medical malpractice awards, the opportunity for citizens to obtain public records and the state’s ability to regulate exotic animal ownership, to mention just a few.
There’s also the cost of finding another judge to fill in in those cases when justices excuse themselves because of conflicts of interest. Those judges receive $50 a day plus expenses.
Each side in the debate has offered opinions from various judicial committees around the country backing their position.
DeWine’s Democratic opponent said the conflict is clear.
“I would never sit on a case where a close family member was involved as a party,” said Judge Cynthia Rice of the 11th Ohio District Court of Appeals in Warren. “I’m surprised my opponent doesn’t understand this, especially for cases as important as those that reach Ohio’s highest court.”
Pat DeWine said it was sad that Pepper, the state Democratic chairman, “would try to turn this into a political issue just two weeks before an election, especially when the facts and the law don’t support him.”
Earlier this year, the Ohio State Bar Association, in its annual ratings of judicial candidates, listed Rice as highly recommended and DeWine as not recommended. The association doesn’t explain its ratings.