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Government & Politics

Ohio Supreme Court Tackled Tough Decisions in 2018

photo of Ohio Supreme Court
DAN KONIK
/
STATEHOUSE NEWS BUREAU
Ohio's highest court debated issues from abortion to charter schools this year.

It was a big year for the Ohio Supreme Court, with decisions on abortion, the death penalty and bobbleheads, and the final blow to what had been the state’s largest online charter school. 

One of the biggest rulings came in February, in two cases left over from 2017. The court decided Cleveland’s Preterm clinic didn’t have standing to sue over abortion restrictions in the 2013 budget, including a ban on transfer agreements between clinics and public hospitals. And it said Toledo’s Capital Care clinic could be shut down because it didn’t have a transfer agreement with any hospital.  Ohio Right to Life’s Mike Gonidakis celebrated. “No one can skirt the law. These regulations were set up to protect women, to make sure women have access to emergency care.”

While NARAL Pro Choice Ohio’s Kellie Copeland had a different reaction. “I’m really concerned that politics is interfering in women being able to get health care that they need.”

Toledo’s clinic was eventually reopened when it signed an agreement with a local non-profit hospital.

A week before those rulings another blockbuster case was argued, as attorneys for the state and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) debated whether its funding should be based on student participation or just enrollment in the online charter school. ECOT’s attorney Marion Little sparred with Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

“Even if a student does not attend, ECOT is still entitled to the full per capita?” O'Connor asked. “That would be the testimony of all witnesses on the enrollment methodology,” Little responded. O'Connor replied, “Ok let me ask you, stop. How is that not absurd?”

ECOT had closed just before the case was argued, but had hoped to reopen depending on the court’s decision. But the justices ruled the state could continue clawing back $80 million in overpayments, dealing ECOT its final blow.

In April, the high court upheld the state’s death penalty law. Attorneys for 54-year old Marion killer Maurice Mason claimed that since the US Supreme Court threw out Florida’s death penalty because it gave execution sentencing power to judges and not juries, Ohio’s law is also unconstitutional, because judges impose sentences. The court unanimously sided with the state, saying the judge’s authority comes directly from the jury’s verdict.  The US Supreme Court has declined to consider a challenge to that ruling.

In June, the justices unanimously struck down a lower court’s decision to block state lawmakers’ efforts to cut state funding to cities that were not complying with a 2015 state traffic camera law. Part of that law was later found unconstitutional.  But the Supreme Court agreed with Michael Hendershot from the attorney general’s office, who argued the case in April. “The idea that any trial court can tell the Assembly not to legislate, I think, is a fairly shocking proposition.” The ruling would allow Toledo to continue with its challenge to the constitutionality of the overall traffic camera law.

The court also issued two big rulings related to sports. The justices said a brain injury lawsuit filed in Cuyahoga County against the University of Notre Dame and the NCAA can proceed, against their argument that a two-year statute of limitations prevented that.  The court sided with the widow of Steven Schmitz, who played Notre Dame football in the 1970s and died three years ago after suffering from brain diseases.  Hundreds of former players have filed similar suits against the NCAA, saying it didn’t do enough to protect them from head injuries.

And the court also said the Cincinnati Reds don’t have to pay the state tens of thousands of dollars in use taxes on purchases of bobbleheads and other promotional items. Reds attorney Steven Dimengo argued that bobbleheads are exempt like any item that is actually not given away but resold. “It’s built into the ticket price. That’s the core of the issue. Because that’s one of the acts that you have to do – you have to purchase a ticket.” But the opinion warns the decision might not apply to other organizations.

2018 also brought the first shakeup in the political makeup of the court in years. The only Democrat, Bill O’Neill, quit in January to run in the primary for governor. Gov. John Kasich then appointed Republican Mary DeGenaro. But DeGenaro was defeated in November by Melody Stewart, the first African American Democratic woman directly elected to statewide office in Ohio. And Michael Donnelly defeated Craig Baldwin to replace Justice Terrence O’Donnell, so there are two Democrats on the high court for the first time since 2013.