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Retired Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor on Becoming a Republican Heretic

The legal luminary and former lieutenant governor is a lonely voice against her party’s rightward shift.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Retiring Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor at the Supreme Court of Ohio Law Library

Maureen O’Connor is leaving the Ohio Supreme Court with a string of superlatives behind her name, from the first woman elected to the state’s top court job to becoming the longest-serving woman in an Ohio statewide office (19 years as of December). She’s also the first Ohio chief justice to step down because of age limits, which prevent judicial candidates from running for office at 70 or older.

But today’s partisan politics also tagged O’Connor, a Republican, with a less welcome headline. Earlier in 2022, some far-right members of the party called for her impeachment after she repeatedly declared unconstitutional legislative maps drawn by the GOP-majority Ohio Redistricting Commission, siding with three Democratic justices who said the maps didn’t do enough to reduce gerrymandering that favored Republicans. O’Connor dismisses the removal demands—which went nowhere—as political theater. But she also acknowledges her dissatisfaction with current Republican positions.

“Are you sure you’re a Republican?” Colleen Marshall, WCMH-TV anchor, jokingly asked O’Connor during an April Ohio State Bar Foundation summit on LGBTQ+ issues.

“I don’t think I am anymore,” O’Connor replied.

Asked about that exchange during a late November Zoom interview with Columbus Monthly, O’Connor says she doesn’t subscribe to the party’s current values. She calls Republicans’ love affair with former President Donald Trump “nauseating” and mentions relatives and staff members who are gay as she criticizes what she sees as GOP discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.

“How does that comport with the teachings of Jesus Christ?” asks O’Connor, who grew up Roman Catholic—she was the second of eight children—and attended Catholic schools from first grade through college.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer and Chief Justice O’Connor listen to arguments from Progress Ohio attorney Maurice Thompson on November 6, 2013.

O’Connor also drew the ire of some party members when she sided with Democratic justices in a January 2022 ruling that lowered the bond for a man accused of fatally shooting another during a robbery. Dissenting Republican Justice Pat De-Wine—son of Gov. Mike DeWine—said the majority ruling would make Ohioans feel “less safe.” The decision inspired a ballot issue approved overwhelmingly in November that requires judges to consider criminal suspects’ threat to public safety when setting bail. O’Connor rejects the issue as a Republican “dog whistle” meant to scare people to the polls.

Yet O’Connor, a registered Republican, is also hopeful the party will change. “There’s going to be some backlash at some point,” she says. “I do believe people are going to say, ‘What are we doing? This is just not helpful, and it’s not good for America.’”

O’Connor, who turned 71 in August, grew up in suburban Cleveland, daughter of a dentist father and homemaker-turned-businesswoman mother. After graduating in 1973 from Pennsylvania’s Seton Hill University—an all-women’s college at that time—O’Connor did everything from waiting tables to considering (and then rejecting) the idea of becoming a teacher. “Thousands of children have benefited from that decision,” she quips. Eventually, she gave herself an ultimatum: bum around Europe or go to law school. Her acceptance into Cleveland-Marshall College of Law (now called the Cleveland State University College of Law) cemented her path, and she graduated in 1980 while juggling classes with becoming a mother to her two boys.

Bob Taft and Maureen O’Connor, his running mate, during their successful 1998 gubernatorial campaign. They were photographed at an event held at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Downtown Columbus.

O’Connor quickly rose through the political ranks, from a private practice lawyer in Summit County to a magistrate judge, then a common pleas judge, and ultimately the elected Summit County prosecutor. Among her most memorable cases was prosecuting the man known as the Goodyear Heights Rapist (after the Akron neighborhood where most of his crimes were committed)—a defendant O’Connor insisted plead guilty to every rape he committed in the county, regardless of whether the statutes of limitations had passed.

In 1998, O’Connor was elected lieutenant governor as Bob Taft’s running mate. Four years later, she successfully ran for an open Supreme Court seat, then won a second term in 2008. She was elected chief justice in 2010 when the position opened after the untimely death of then-Chief Justice Thomas Moyer. Despite her steady march into Ohio judicial history, O’Connor says she never followed a master plan: “If you would have said to me in law school, ‘You’re going to be a judge someday,’ I would have said ‘You’re crazy.’”

As chief justice, O’Connor pushed for reductions in the use of cash bail to jail poor defendants, created a statewide sentencing database and lobbied against an ultimately unsuccessful 2018 ballot initiative that would have reduced penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. O’Connor argued it would have reduced courts’ roles as the stick in the carrot-and-stick approach to drug treatment.

Today, O’Connor is looking forward to being “liberated” in retirement as of Dec. 31, though she wasn’t exactly counting down the hours. “Alexa, how many days left in the year?” she interrupts during the interview, quizzing her Amazon voice-controlled virtual assistant. (Thirty-four at the time.) O’Connor isn’t making specific plans, though she’s expressed interest in helping spearhead a ballot initiative to create a truly nonpartisan redistricting commission. Beyond that, she may return to her pre-law-school goal of wandering around Europe, or just embrace a favorite Italian phrase: dolce far niente, or “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

“You just don’t have to go through life with a plan from Point A to Point Z and you do it with blinders on,” O’Connor says. “If I would have done that, I would have missed everything along the way and not be where I am today.”

This story is from the January 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.