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Here we go again in Ohio. As in 2000, when judicial election campaigns were costly and ugly, this year’s campaigns for two seats on the Ohio Supreme Court are unfolding with well-financed attack-style advertising. The same interests battled two years ago for control of the high court — trial lawyers and unions versus business and medical groups. The court is divided, 4-3, on many key issues, such as tort reform. One of four justices who often vote together on such issues to the vexation of business interests is retiring, and two candidates are vying for the seat: Republican Lt. Gov. Maureen O’Connor and Democrat Tim Black, a Cincinnati municipal judge who ran unsuccessfully in 2000. In the other race, Republican incumbent Justice Evelyn L. Stratton is opposed by Democrat Janet R. Burnside, a Cleveland trial court judge. Few statewide races are so hard-fought, says Charles T. McConville, political director of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. “There is no other game in town in Ohio this year,” he says. The chamber has attacked the majority for what it calls anti-business rulings that it says legislate public policy. It gives Stratton its highest pro-business ranking on the court. It contributed $100,000 to its political affiliate, Citizens for a Strong Ohio, which has bought two Stratton ads. That group has changed its strategy after producing the most controversial ad of the 2000 season. Financed by $4 million in secret contributions from businesses and seeking — unsuccessfully — to oust Democratic Justice Alice Resnick, it criticized her for taking money from trial lawyers and depicted a “Lady Justice” figure grabbing cash. This year it has pledged to run positive campaigns and disclose all contributors — insurers and large corporations — that have donated about $1 million, says McConville, its vice president. “I think we are more reticent about introducing negativity into judicial politics,” he says. “But does business still have a problem with the Ohio Supreme Court? Yes.” Hospitals and doctors are backing Stratton and O’Connor with a political action committee. In September, doctors ran ads attacking “meritless lawsuits brought against doctors in hopes of winning outrageous settlements.” A similar tack was taken by a new business group, Informed Citizens of Ohio, whose contributors as well as the amounts of money they raised are secret. For “issue advocacy” not tied directly to candidates, spending amounts and sources can remain confidential under Ohio law. Among 2002′s most controversial ads are two produced by a trial lawyers’ and union political action committee called Citizens for an Independent Court. One mocks Stratton, whose own campaign calls her the “velvet hammer.” “Yeah, corporations get the velvet; Ohio families get the hammer,” says a man who won an appeal of a negligence case against his employer over her vote. A trial bar television spot says the Democrats are on “our side” — showing a family picnic — but their opponents are on “their side” — laughing executives in a limousine. A State Bar committee on judicial elections has sharply criticized the ad, calling for it to be yanked. It said the same of one by the other side. Run by Competition Ohio, a business-supported group, the somewhat elliptical television spot praises O’Connor and Stratton. It implies they will stand up for consumers and small businesses regarding a phone provider’s request for a rate increase, should it ever reach the court. The head of the Bar committee, David C. Crago, dean of the Ohio Northern University College of Law, says such ads hurt the judicial system by implying that judges have already decided cases. The candidates themselves are no longer held to a $550,000 spending cap ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. They have raised $1 million or more each, according to the latest disclosures. O’Connor and Stratton had raised $1.5 million each. All four candidates have run their own TV ads, some barbed. For example, Black’s ad criticizes O’Connor by saying, “Supreme Court justices should be judges, not politicians.”

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