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Ohio Supreme Court justice sues to remove partisan labels from judicial races

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner is suing in federal court to remove an Ohio law requiring many judges to run with a partisan label.

Brunner, a Democrat from Columbiana County, wants to change a law requiring judges and candidates running for the Ohio Supreme Court and appellate courts to put a party label next to their name on the ballot. The lawsuit also wants to change a rule that requires justices to retire from the bench before running for a non-judicial office.

Her lawsuit seeks to prevent the law from impacting future ballots.

The lawsuit has implications for Brunner's future political ambitions. The lawsuit signals Brunner may be eyeing a run for another office in 2026, when Ohio is set to elect a new governor.

Brunner was elected in 2020 and ran for Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court unsuccessfully in 2022, the first election required to have a party label for judges. She has also served as Ohio Secretary of State in the past.

The lawsuit claims the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct says candidates can't engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity or impartiality of the judiciary. She says she was denied her constitutional rights to speech and due process because of the partisan label. 

Brunner argues the law makes judges seem more partisan when the code of conduct places restrictions on such conduct and can penalize those who break it.

The law requiring these rules was signed by Governor Mike DeWine in 2021 after Brunner had successfully won a seat on the court with a partisan label and before she was labeled as a Democrat and lost to current Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy in 2022.

The Ohio Supreme Court is currently split between four Republicans and three Democrats.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Board of Professional Conduct are all named as defendants in the case.

U.S. District Judge Benita Pearson is the judge assigned to the case.

She is being represented by her husband, Columbus attorney Rick Brunner.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.