Once the Ohio Supreme Court hears arguments in a case, its deliberations take place behind closed doors.
On Wednesday Bryan was given a peek inside the room.
As part of a visit to Bryan, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judi French spoke to the Bryan Kiwanis Club about the high court and how it operates. Later, she toured the Ohio Art Company.
Justice French said her trip to Williams County was one of her periodic visits to each part of the state. She said her goal is to meet with people from around the state to learn more about issues facing Ohioans “and why it might be important for all of you.”
As a quick primer, the justice explained there are three levels of courts in Ohio — trial courts, courts of appeal and the Supreme Court.
Trial courts decide about 3.5 million cases each year, many of those traffic cases, Justice French explained. Those decisions can be challenged in appellate courts — for Williams County, the Sixth District Court of Appeals — which can either uphold or modify the original decisions. About 10,000 cases are appealed statewide each year.
From there the state Supreme Court can be petitioned to hear appeals. But, unlike the courts of appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court can choose whether or not to take up a case.
“For the most part, we decide what we want to decide,” the judge said. “I’m making judgments about what type of cases we should take in.”
Each year the Ohio high court receives about 1,500 applications, and on average about 100 of those cases are selected, although that number fluctuates from year to year, she said.
A yes voite of at least four of the seven high court justices is required for a case to be accepted, she said.
Justice French said some cases do come automatically to the Supreme Court, including death penalty and utilities cases and disciplinary matters involving judges and attorneys.
In selecting other cases to consider, she said, the justices look for decisions that will have a broad impact.
Each of the seven justices is elected to a six-year term, including the chief justice.
Justice French said the Ohio Supreme Court is the final arbiter of state law, and the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of federal law. The state high court cannot overrule a U.S. high court ruling, Justice French said, “but we can interpret it.”
“No matter what question is in front of me, I know to be consistent,” she said, explaining that rulings must be based on what has happened in the past.
When asked about her most impactful decisions while serving on the Ohio Supreme Court, she said it has been a ruling regarding the First Amendment. “What that case shows me was how many questions remain,” she said, regarding free speech and the freedom of religion.
Justice French said that as an attorney she argued cases before both the Ohio and U.S. high courts, and that she is very interested in constitutional law. “These are the cases that are very impactful,” she said.
Death penalty cases are very impactful as well, she added.
In response to a question about Ohio redistricting, she said any current questions are being decided at the federal level.
“How do justices decide a case?” she asked the Kiwanians. First, she said, oral arguments are presented by the lawyers. “It’s a time for the justices to ask questions, and get clarification,” she said.
Oral arguments are webcast live and later aired on television. Justice French said this gives citizens an opportunity to learn about the justices, such as how well prepared they are.
“Then we go into what I call conference,” she said. This takes place with the seven justices seated around a conference table, with a court reporter present to record the votes.
Justices are seated and given the chance to speak based on seniority, starting with the Chief Justice, currently Maureen O’Connor, with the junior justice speaking last. “We speak without interruption,” she said.
Once every justice has spoken, she explained, general deliberation follows. She described this as “sort of a free-for-all” that is very cordial but can be very spirited.
Once deliberations are concluded, a vote is taken, with justices casting votes in reverse order of seniority and the chief justice voting last.
Decided next, Justice French explained, is which justice will write the decision — “who’s going to be the voice of that decision.”
In Ohio that selection is made from among justices voting with the majority based on drawing marbles. “It’s totally random, which I think is nice, really,” the justice said.
Each justice also is free to write his or her own opinion as well — a concurrent opinion, if agreeing with the majority decision but for a different reason, or a dissenting opinion if voting with the minority.
“I can tell you that when I got there and I saw it behind the scenes, I was pleased,” Justice French said of the process.
She encouraged Kiwanians to visit the court while it is in session, as the oral arguments are open to the public. “It’s your Supreme Court,” she said, “and by all means please come down and visit us.”