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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is targeting a state Supreme Court race to rein in the anti-business decisions of what it considers an activist court.
"In Ohio, conventional thinking about Republicans being pro-business is wrong as it applies to the Supreme Court," said Chip McConville, director of the chamber's Political and Candidate Education program.
In Ohio, "while Republicans control the Supreme Court 5-2, there is frequently a 4-3 anti-business majority in the court's decisions," said Bob Hickey, an attorney with Thompson, Hine & Flory L.L.P. in Columbus, Ohio. That is because Republican Associate Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and Andrew Douglas frequently side with plaintiffs attorneys and organized labor, he said.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is seeking to unseat Justice Pfeifer, who has a 40% pro-business approval rating, based on a 1997 evaluation that tracked 154 decisions handed down from 1988 to 1997, according to the chamber's P.a.C.E. program.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce is not alone in its efforts to influence the outcome of judicial races, where previously only lawyers were involved. Nationwide, there is a growing trend for such interest groups to extend their reach beyond lobbying legislative and gubernatorial races, said Seth Andersen, director of the American Judicatory Society's Hunter Center for Judicial Selection in Chicago.
Similar court watches are under way in Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas, according to the chamber's Mr. McConville.
"The business community may have support in the legislatures and governors' houses, but gains in the legislature can be wiped out by activists courts who give no deference to legislative enactments," Mr. McConville said.
In Ohio, Justice Pfeifer is running in one of three Supreme Court contests that are technically non-partisan in the general election, meaning that his party affiliation is not listed on the ballot. The justice's affiliation with the Republican Party is known, however, because he was designated through an earlier partisan primary.
The upcoming November balloting for his seat is "a very significant opportunity to realign the court and make it more balanced," said Joseph Annotti, assistant vp-public affairs for the National Assn. of Independent Insurers in Des Plaines, Ill.
In its first-ever endorsements of Supreme Court candidates, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce is recommending that business interests support Ronald Suster, a conservative Democrat, over Justice Pfeifer.
Business groups expect Mr. Suster to be more impartial, though he is not expected to always vote for business interests.
"Many businesspeople are supporting Pfeifer's opponent because of decisions like Bunger," said Jim Woodward, managing director-public policy for the Ohio Manufacturers' Assn., which does not endorse candidates.
In that 4-3 decision, Bunger vs. Lawson Co., which Justice Pfeifer wrote, the court upheld the right of a convenience store clerk to sue her employer outside the workers compensation system because her alleged psychological work-related injury was not covered by state workers comp law (see related story). Ohio law currently considers a worker's psychological injuries to be compensable only if they are accompanied by physical injuries.
Election-focused opposition from business groups is a concern, said Melody Hamilton, Justice Pfeifer's campaign and finance director. "It is distressing that they are more concerned with their personal agendas instead of a fair and independent court system," she said. "Court opinions should be based on facts and law, especially the constitution, not on who brought the case forward," she said.
Also, voters should consider the evaluation of the Ohio State Bar Assn., which rated Justice Pfeifer "qualified" and Mr. Suster "not recommended," she said. The ratings were based on a variety of criteria, including references and interviews.
The Ohio AFL-CIO is among Mr. Pfeifer's boosters. "He has written good decisions that labor feels are supportive of people in the state," said Stewart Jaffy, general counsel for the Ohio AFL-CIO.