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The new role dark money is playing in campaigns for Ohio's top court

gavel_outside_the_ohio_supreme_court__columbus__ohio__credit_dan_konik_.png
Daniel Konik
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Gavel outside of the Ohio Judicial Center, where the Ohio Supreme Court is located

This year will be the first general election when justices running for the Ohio Supreme Court will have their political party designation on the ballot beside their names and a group that monitors elections said Ohio is among the top three states for highest spending supreme court races.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates nearly $1 million has been spent on Ohio’s three supreme court races. The organization’s Douglas Keith said a lot of that is money from unknown donors.

More dark money groups are putting their dollars into advertising for key judicial seats, he said.

“These elections fly pretty far under the radar. They don’t get the attention other races do. As a result, the sort of very sophisticated political actors know that the price tag on influencing a race like this is actually much much lower than influencing something like a gubernatorial election or a senatorial election,” Keith said.

Common Cause Ohio Executive Director Catherine Turcer said it's important voters look beyond the ads when deciding how to vote on supreme court races.

Her group has put up a website to track money spent in judicial races. Turcer said JudgeTheAds.org gives voters information on the groups airing secret ads and more information about the races themselves.

"We wanted to encourage voters to be skeptical of these ads, to look for who paid for them, and to really do what they could to follow the money," Turcer said.

Turcer said these are important races where the impartiality and credibility of justices can make "all the difference for Ohioans." And she said sometimes the worst ads are put out in the hours before an election so that the media or candidates don't have time to dispel their inaccuracies.

Turcer noted the Ohio Bar Association, which has a committee that monitors ads, pushed back on three of them aired this election season. Turcer said she was able to look at IRS records to determine one of the ads was sponsored by a non-profit group that gave money from another non-profit.

She said it becomes complicated and gives "only the barest understanding" of who is responsible for ads. And she said that is particularly true of some of the darkest ads that give inaccurate, misleading or scary information to voters.

Current justices Sharon Kennedy, a Republican, and Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, are locked in a race for chief justice. The other Republican associate justices, Pat Fischer and Pat DeWine, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s son, are running against federal appeals court judges Terri Jamison, on the 10th District and Marilyn Zayas, from the 1st District.

Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.