By Ellen Essman, Sr. Research Associate, Ohio State University Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Ohio Supreme Court recently decided that a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” initiative could be placed before Toledo residents in a special election Feb. 26, 2019. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) is a proposed amendment to the Toledo City Charter. Josh Abernathy, an opponent to the initiative, brought the lawsuit, seeking a “writ of prohibition”— meaning he wanted the Ohio Supreme Court to determine that the Lucas County Board of Elections must remove LEBOR from the special election ballot.
The Supreme Court began its analysis in the case by explaining that in order to obtain a writ of prohibition in an election case, the party bringing suit must prove all of the following:
- The board of elections exercised quasi-judicial power,
- The exercise of that power was unlawful, and
- The party bringing suit has no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law.
The Supreme Court examined the three elements in reverse order. It quickly answered the third element in the affirmative — reasoning that because the election was so imminent, Abernathy did “not have an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law,” because any other suit, such as an injunction, would not be finished prior to the election.
The Supreme Court determined that the second element was not satisfied. It reasoned that the “exercise of power” was not “unlawful,” because “a board of elections has no legal authority to review the substance of a proposed charter amendment and has no discretion to block the measure from the ballot based on an assessment of its suitability.” In doing so, the Supreme Court pointed to past cases it had decided, as well as the language in Article XVIII, Section 9 of the Ohio Constitution, which must be read with Section 8, both provided above. Section 9 says that a charter amendment can “be submitted to” the voters “by a two-thirds vote of the legislative authority,” as well as through a petition signed by 10% of the voters in the municipality. Then, as is explained above, the board of elections must pass an ordinance to include the proposed amendment on the ballot. After that, the Supreme Court found, based on precedent and the language of the Constitution, the only responsibility of the board of elections is to put the charter amendment on the ballot — the board has no other authority.
Finally, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that since the second element was not met, there was no reason to address the first element — whether or not “the board’s exercise of authority was quasi-judicial.” Abernathy also argued that the board of elections should not have put LEBOR on the ballot due to the doctrine of claim preclusion — meaning that since the Court had already decided a case concerning LEBOR, the board should not have the power to place it on the ballot afterwards. The Supreme Court disagreed, pointing once again to the language in the Ohio Constitution, which effectively says that “the board had no power to keep the proposed charter amendment off the ballot for any reason, including claim preclusion.” In sum, the Supreme Court decided that based on a reading of case law and the Ohio Constitution, the board of elections in Toledo had no option other than placing LEBOR on the ballot. This outcome does not necessarily mean that if Toledo passes LEBOR, it is a done deal; if and when it passes, courts could determine it is unconstitutional and/or beyond the scope of the city’s power.
The case is cited as State ex rel. Abernathy v. Lucas Cty. Bd. Of Elections, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-201, and the opinion is available at https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2019/2019-Ohio-201.pdf.