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Ohio Senate Republicans pass bill that limits judicial power to pause new state laws

The Franklin County Courthouse in Columbus
Liesl Bonneau

The Republican majority in the Ohio Senate has advanced a bill that would weaken the power common pleas judges have in putting state laws on pause during active litigation.

Senators added the provision last minute to an unrelated proposal, House Bill 305, on electronic court filings.

Legal action against code coming out of the Ohio Legislature most often starts in one of Ohio's numerous county courts. By request, a judge can place a court-ordered pause on the law from taking effect or remaining in effect as the litigation plays out.

In the last two years, short-term restraining orders and preliminary injunctions have halted GOP-backed state laws to ban abortion at fetal viability, around six weeks, and—more recently—block transgender youth from gender-affirming care.

Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima) said Wednesday those holds are unfair to voters, who elected lawmakers to make laws. “If the statewide law is going to be enjoined, there needs to be a more expeditious way for that to get taken care of,” Huffman said.

What the Senate GOP voted through would allow the state to appeal those orders. The chamber's Democrats voted against HB 305.

Freda Levenson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio, is the main attorney on the lawsuit against the state over House Bill 68, the gender-affirming care ban. Levenson said a proposal like this muddies the judicial process—disallowing judges from blocking laws they determine are unconstitutional.

“If a law is held by a judge to be unconstitutional, it really doesn't make sense,” Levenson said.

But it's an issue that's caught the eye of the state's highest court, which holds a GOP majority.

Hours before the vote, Ohio Supreme Court justices unanimously denied a request from Attorney General Dave Yost to overturn the judge's order in the case against HB 68—but some said it raised a larger issue.

“Is it appropriate for one judge in a single county to issue a statewide injunction that goes beyond what is necessary to provide interim relief to the parties in the case?” Justice Pat DeWine, a Republican, wrote.

The lawsuits against the six-week abortion ban - the so-called “heartbeat bill” - and HB 68 were filed in Hamilton and Franklin County courts, both of which lean heavily Democratic. A decision on the six-week ban is expected any day.

HB 305 got a serious makeover in committee Wednesday morning—when it was also amended to include language barring foreign contributions to ballot initiatives.

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at sdonaldson@statehousenews.org.