Justice Pat DeWine believes the public shares a lot of misconceptions about the workings of the Ohio Supreme Court. He also believes it’s part of his duty to set them straight.
DeWine spoke to the Swanton Rotary Club on Thursday about the state’s judicial system, one of 50 visits he’s made this year to civic organizations across the state, as well as eight visits to local bar associations, to discuss the inner workings of the court. He said it’s an opportunity to explain the importance of the Supreme Court and how its effect on cases already tried by lower courts affect the state’s citizenry.
“We’re not retrying the case. Rather, we’re looking for specific errors we think the court below made that would have affected the outcome,” DeWine said. “The most important thing that the court does is to protect the guarantees the people have under the Ohio and U.S. constitutions. Part of our job is to make sure that no other branch of government infringes upon those rights.”
Of about 1,100 cases requested annually to the state Supreme Court, the seven justices will agree to hear about 60. Some deal with questionably unconstitutional laws passed by legislators that could take away people’s freedom. Some are heard automatically, such as disciplinary cases against attorneys or cases involving Ohio administrative agencies. The cases heard will review decisions made by courts of appeal.
DeWine said the cases the justices choose to hear are typically those that will affect the whole of the state’s population, “not just to the parties in that case but it’s going to matter across Ohio – a case that we say is of great public importance or interest.” He said it may be a case in which the law requires clarity or in which different areas of the state have decided the issue differently.
“We want the results to be the same, no matter where you live in Ohio,” he said.
A Supreme Court justice for five years, DeWine was elected after serving previously on common pleas and appellate court benches and practicing law for 13 years. His Supreme Court duties have led him through cases in which precedent was set regarding such important issues as the country’s first and second amendments.
“People have less information about the judiciary than any other branch of government, so I think it’s important that we go out and educate them about what we do as a court,” he said.
His presentation includes interesting tidbits the public is curious about. For instance, he said, in some cases the original attorneys on a case will argue before the Supreme Court justices, although often they’ll hire attorneys will more expertise in the area of the case.
The justices hear about five cases per day, then retire to a conference room to discuss each one. After they’ve voted on a case they’ll choose one justice to draft a written consensus, while those who disagree with the outcome may write a dissenting opinion. After reviewing those opinions the justices vote a second time based on what they’ve read, which can sometimes lead to a new outcome.
“It’s really a big responsibility. We decide some very important cases…some decisions we make could have some pretty important ramifications across the state, so we take it very seriously,” DeWine said.
He admits that sometimes the justices can get it wrong, but they don’t dwell on it.
“We all make mistakes, but…you have to make the best decision you can, and then you have to just move forward…You have to learn to get all the facts, all the information, and get to where you think you make what your conscience says is the best decision,” he said.
There is a 14-day period of reconsideration following each ruling, DeWine said. If a glaring error is noted, the decision can be reversed during that time.
He said he makes the effort to school citizens on the Ohio Supreme Court because it’s likely one of the most misunderstood branches of the state government. He said it’s necessary that people know how intricately their lives can be affected by the justices’ work.
“What I actually find is that people are very curious…They don’t know much about the Ohio Supreme Court other than there is one. They’re generally curious about what we do and how the system works,” DeWine said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.