2021 Year In Review: Big decisions at the Ohio Supreme Court, more likely to come soon
Ohio’s seven Supreme Court justices spent much of the year working from home, returning to in-person arguments in the Ohio Judicial Center in September. And that was just one highlight in a big year.
In January, Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor administered the oath of office to Democratic former Secretary of State and appeals court judge Jennifer Brunner in January. Brunner’s defeat of Republican Justice Judi French, who’d been on the court since 2013, put three Democrats on the Court for the first time since 1994. Three years before, all seven justices were Republicans.
By June, Brunner had announced she would run for O’Connor’s position, since state law bans justices over 70 from running for re-election. Brunner could be the first Democratic Chief Justice in 40 years.
Brunner will face Justice Sharon Kennedy, who also ran for re-election in 2020, after fellow Republican Justice Pat DeWine decided not to run against Kennedy.
They’ll run with party labels on the ballot next year, with a bill signed in June.
Democrats including Rep. Stephanie Howse (D-Cleveland) opposed that, while noting Democrats have won three seats in the last two Ohio Supreme Court elections.
“So let’s just be real. Be a straight shooter. Y’all scared. It’s cool. Because Democrats are absolutely coming for the Ohio Supreme Court in ’22,” Howse said in debate on the House floor in June.
But Republican sponsors said Ohio is only state that requires judges to run in partisan primaries and then in alleged non-partisan general elections.
In March, the Court announced that Ohio’s 28 counties with both multiple municipal courts and county courts must use a uniform bail schedule starting in July. And O’Connor said the first option must be releasing people on personal recognizance bonds.
“The only time that you would determine that pre-trial detention would be appropriate would be if there was a risk of flight, or there was a danger of harm to the community, the witnesses, maybe a victim, that sort of thing," O'Connor said in March.
While conservative and liberal groups have pushed for bail system changes, Kennedy and DeWine disagreed with this order, saying they didn’t feel the court had the authority.
One of the court’s biggest decisions was in June, when the justices split sharply over the Madison Local School District’s policy of allowing 10 teachers and school staff to be armed with just 24 hours of training, after a 2014 shooting at Madison Junior/Senior High school left four people injured.
In arguments before the Court in January, Rachel Bloomekatz represented the parents who sued the southwestern Ohio district, saying more than 700 hours are required by state law.
“The board authorized here less training than a Little League umpire, less training than a nail technician in Ohio,” Bloomekatz said.
The court ruled 4-3 in favor of the parents.
But the case had already sparked a bill to lower the state’s required training to 20 hours. It’s sponsored by Rep. Thomas Hall (R-Middletown), whose father was a resource officer at the school when that shooting happened.
In October, the Court also settled the longstanding challenge over what was Ohio’s largest online charter school and its outstanding bill to the state.
The court ruled the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, closed since 2018, has to pay back $60 million it got for inflated student enrollment numbers. The state’s Eric Clark said lawmakers were clear that the Ohio Department of Education had the authority to issue that final notice.
“The General Assembly could have said ‘final and appealable,’ as it has on other occasions, and it did not do that," Clark argued before the Court in March.
Also in October, the court ordered FirstEnergy to pay back customers more than $306 million, saying the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio didn't do enough to make sure the company would abide by corporate separation policies. The average ratepayer of Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, Ohio Edison and Toledo Edison will get about $85 back over the course of five years.
The court ruled in November that a rural Huron County couple isn’t financially responsible after a driver was injured after hitting their mailbox, which they’d built from a steel pipe and cement after vandals kept attacking it. The driver was paralyzed after his truck slid on ice, hit the mailbox and flipped over, but the court said the mailbox wasn’t a threat to motorists on the road.
Cleveland drivers who leased cars or were driving employer-owned vehicles and got traffic camera tickets want to get back nearly $6 million in fines and interest racked up between 2005 and 2009. The cameras went dark in 2014. A class action sued argued in September challenged that those penalties were a foregone conclusion and impossible to overturn, but Cleveland’s lawyer said they broke the law and admitted it by paying the fines. Those drivers are waiting for a decision.
Some 200,000 Ohioans who had been receiving $300 weekly unemployment checks earlier this year are waiting for arguments before the court in their case, which claims Gov. Mike DeWine didn’t have the power to cut off those checks in June when the federal program wasn’t to end till September.
Chief Justice O’Connor is considered a crucial vote, since she voted to throw out maps drawn in 2011, though the majority upheld them.
Republicans have argued that Justice Brunner should recuse herself because she talked about redistricting in her 2020 campaign, but haven’t addressed the decision by Justice DeWine not to recuse himself in the case that did directly involve his father, Gov. DeWine, a member of the commission that approved those maps – but the Court removed Gov. DeWine from the Congressional map case in December.
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