Philosophy, Law and Politics

Judicial Determination of City Council Suspensions is a Good Thing

City of Cincinnati Council Member Betsy Sundermann has offered an amendment to the City Charter which would permit the Cincinnati City Council to sanction council members for alleged criminal activity. The proposed amendment is a comprehensive and extensive exercise of Home Rule. The amendment contends that the current disciplinary procedure is lengthy and complex, and that the proposed Charter amendment will provide an efficient and expedient method for removing council members. However, the proposed amendment overlooks several fundamental democratic principles.

 The Charter amendment would eliminate the current right of voters to sue a council member for removal from office when the council member may have received illegal compensation for official duties, been interested in the profits of a city contract, have acted in a capacity in addition to being a council member with respect to work of the city, or been guilty of misfeasance or malfeasance in office. The proposed Charter amendment replaces this procedure with one that includes several potential sources of political impropriety.

The amendment permits City Council to suspend one of its own members under a state or federal indictment or charge of a crime of moral turpitude by vote of Council.  A council member facing suspension is subject to the unfettered discretion of City Council, for the proposed procedure does not offer a standard governing Council’s suspension power other than the alleged misconduct of the council member.

Rather, the amendment permits a suspension to be determined by a mere majority vote of Council as if it were any other ordinary legislative act of the representative body. Matters such as suspension from office should be subject to a standard striving toward nonpartisanship. Since suspensions are not mandatory or automatic, the disciplinary procedure should seek to prevent the possibility that a suspension may be based upon reasons other than the alleged misconduct. By way of example, in the instance of the United States Congress, each House may expel a member only upon a two-thirds vote. Similarly, the Senate may convict an executive or judicial official on trial in the impeachment process only upon a two-thirds vote. Council must even itself admit that important, extraordinary and extreme acts such as the Charter amendment by emergency ordinance being used to initiate this disciplinary reform may only be approved upon a two-thirds vote of Council. Even the present authority given to municipalities by Ohio Revised Code Section 731.45 to expel one of its own members for disorderly conduct requires a two-thirds vote. Yet, Council asks for the power to oust one of its own by only a majority vote.

The two-thirds, supermajority standard for important measures was chosen historically for two reasons. First, measures which transcend and supplant the will of the people, such as suspension of an elected official, should require more than an ordinary exercise of the power of the representatives. And, second, a supermajority places acts initiated for mere political objectives beyond the reach of collaborative faction. Suspension should not be a political matter.

In addition to the probate court removal power the Charter amendment seeks to replace, the primary disciplinary method under Ohio law is also judicial. It provides that suspension from office before a council member is proven guilty undermines our democracy unless done by the highest court in the state with the assistance of a lower court in filling any vacancy. This is closer to an innocent until proven guilty standard.

This primary disciplinary procedure only permits a council member’s suspension from office if the council member is charged with a felony under state or federal law and the alleged crime relates to performance of the council member’s official duties or is adverse to the rights and interests of the public at large. It also requires participation by two branches of Ohio government, the Attorney General or the Council’s county prosecuting attorney in the Executive Branch and the Supreme Court in the Judicial.

Under this method, the Attorney General or Council’s county prosecutor determines whether the alleged felonious conduct relates to the council member’s official duties or is otherwise adverse to the public. If, so the Attorney General or prosecutor informs the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who then convenes a special commission of three retired justices or judges, one of the same political party as the council member in question. The special commission then makes a preliminary determination as to whether the council member’s conduct adversely affected the member’s office or the rights and interests of the public, and, consequently, whether the official should be suspended from office. 

If the special commission finds that the allegedly illegal conduct does not pose a threat to the member’s office or the public interest, the council member is not suspended from office. If, instead, the special commission reaches a preliminary finding that the council member’s conduct does adversely affect the office or the public rights and interests and that the council member should be suspended from office, the council member is given an opportunity to appear before the special commission and contest the preliminary determination of suspension. The special commission makes a final determination after the meeting and the council member is suspended immediately if the special commission finds that the council member’s conduct was adverse to the office or the public’s rights or interests. The final determination of suspension by the special commission has the same force and effect as a court judgment. The council member may appeal the special commission’s finding to the Supreme Court. The official remains suspended until there is a reversal by the Supreme Court or the council member is found not guilty of the allegedly illegal conduct.

Judicial determination of suspension of a legislative official possesses the traditional “checks and balances” of dividing government to avoid abusive concentrations of power and to mitigate partisan exploitation. It seems unwise to replace a judicial determination of suspension with a procedure that could result in a partisan vote of the legislature within which the member in question sits.

One would hope that one motivation for the proposed Home Rule amendment is not to lessen the burden on the judicial docket, generally, and with respect to suspension cases, specifically. We need a preventative solution to the problem of corruption in government, greater care in local government, not merely a transfer of power for remedying corruption.

Lori Gayle Nuckolls

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