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Senate Passes Resolution To Remove O'Neill From Court, But It's Unlikely To Proceed

Bill O'Neill
Bill O'Neill

Along party lines, Ohio Senators have taken the first step toward removing the only Democrat from the Ohio Supreme Court bench, saying he can’t run for a partisan office as a sitting judge.

But the effort is likely to go nowhere from there.

It’s been three months since Bill O’Neill help a press conference to say he planned to seek the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor in 2018. He’s also selected a running mate, but has not filed his official paperwork to run.

He has turned in his resignation to Gov. John Kasich, effective January 26. It will be up to Kasich to pick his replacement.

For weeks, there had been talk that lawmakers would try to remove O’Neill from the bench, but when O’Neill said he would resign, some thought that was the end of it.

But Republican Senate President Larry Obhof said it’s still important. He spoke on the floor about the resolution himself, saying O’Neill needs to be summoned to appear before state lawmakers, who want to ask him about his campaign and a Facebook post in which O’Neill detailed his sexual history.

“There is a bipartisan understanding throughout the state of Ohio that this type of candidacy and this type of behavior from a sitting justice is not acceptable,” Obhof said.

The leader of Senate Democrats, Kenny Yuko, said the whole point of the resolution is moot since O’Neill says he’ll leave the bench January 26.

“If we were to pass something today and get it to him tomorrow, he would have 10 days to respond. He’s leaving us in eight days. He’s leaving us in eight days,” Yuko said.

O'Neill, 70, is also barred from seeking another term on the bench because of his age.

Republican Bill Coley said the vote was necessary because O’Neill is staying on the bench “because of some disturbed reason.”

“We need to make sure that this justice leaves office and pursues his political ambitions, whichever way he does decide to pursue those, but that he does not remain a member of the Court and prejudice the fair and equitable branch of government that the judiciary has a reputation of becoming,” Coley said.

“The litigants of Ohio deserve better.”

Democratic Senator Michael Skindell opposed the resolution, saying that the ban on judges running for partisan office is a rule adopted by the courts, which make up a separate branch of government.

“We are trumping – this resolution here is trumping the judicial process and it’s my understanding that Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is looking into the matter,” Skindell said. “Let this issue be dealt with by the judicial process because it is their role, not a role of the Ohio General Assembly.”

Democratic Senator Joe Schiavoni, who’s also running for governor, will face O’Neill in the primary and has called for O’Neill to resign. He said on the Senate floor on Wednesday that he questions the timing of this resolution, but he supports it.

“I feel like there are some politics played here today because he’s already agreed to resign. But when you have to vote yes or no, I would choose to vote yes today because I don’t want judges running for office from the bench,” Schiavoni said.

Republican Matt Huffman noted that this resolution was not an impeachment of a sitting justice, but a specific provision of the law directed at state legislators.

“And essentially gives the legislature the authority to remove judges because the legislature thinks it’s the right thing to do,” Huffman said. “Now that’s a pretty big hammer, and that’s why you have to have two-thirds of each house to do it.”

In the end, all Senate Republicans voted yes. Schiavoni was the only Democrat who supported it.

But the idea is apparently stopped for now. For it to proceed, the House would have to pass it too, and Republican Speaker Cliff Rosenberger says he has no plans to take it up.