CLEVELAND (WCMH) – Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner is suing the state over a 2021 law that requires party affiliation be included alongside the names of some judicial office candidates on the ballot.

Brunner filed the complaint in federal court in Cleveland on Election Day, seeking the law struck down or the relaxation of judicial candidate campaign rules for judges affected by the partisan identification requirement. November 2022 was the first time candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court were identified by political party – and when the Democrat lost her bid for chief justice to Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy.

Brunner’s complaint, filed by her husband and attorney Rick Brunner, contends that the law has forced some judicial candidates into a class of their own; they are considered partisan candidates while candidates for trial court judgeships are considered nonpartisan, but they cannot campaign as freely as other partisan candidates because of restrictions on judicial campaigns.

Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 80 into law in 2021, making candidates for Ohio’s appellate courts and the high court officially partisan. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Theresa Gavarone, (R-Bowling Green), said the bill was necessary to give voters as much information at the polls as possible, and to increase voter participation in judicial races.

“By allowing the current process to continue for judicial races, particularly those for the Supreme Court, we are at worst deliberately keeping up with the ruse that these elections are not partisan and at best pretending our constituents do not care about the partisan affiliation of the judges on their ballot,” Gavarone testified in a March 2021 committee hearing.

The law went into effect in September 2021, after Brunner launched her campaign for chief justice.

While candidates for other statewide partisan offices can donate to their own campaigns and endorse or oppose issues or campaigns, judicial candidates cannot. They also cannot solicit campaign donations from individuals and have lower caps on how much individuals and organizations can contribute. Rule violations can result in official reprimand, suspension or disbarment.

If a judge wishes to run for a nonjudicial office in the future, Brunner’s complaint points out, they must first resign from the bench. Her complaint leaves open the opportunity of running for re-election in 2026 or another office entirely. 

Brunner’s complaint further claims that the partisan label law undermines public trust in Ohio’s courts by going against the judicial code’s very requirements to remain neutral and impartial.

“S.B. 80 has placed the appellate level judges and the justices of Ohio in positions to be viewed by the public as partisan, and by the schema of S.B. 80 as part of the state’s election laws, to be seen as an Ohio judicial system that imposes a partisan check on the decisions of non-partisan trial judges,” her complaint reads.

Brunner’s complaint alleges the limits on partisan judicial nominees’ campaigns violate her freedom of speech, due process rights and right to equal protection under the law. She has asked the court to strike down the partisan label requirement for appellate judge and Supreme Court justice positions starting in 2024 elections, or else allow judicial candidates who must be labeled on the ballot to campaign similarly to nonjudicial, partisan candidates.

Read Brunner’s full complaint below.