Monday, May 21, 2018
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Ethics complaint filed against Justice DeWine

COLUMBUS — A judicial panel will hold a hearing into whether Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick DeWine violated ethical rules when he participated in cases involving his father, Attorney General Mike DeWine.

The complaint with the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel was initially triggered by Shamir Lee Coll of Lorain, a University of Toledo law school graduate whom the high court in 2017 blocked from taking the bar exam because of comments he made on his application.

The record of cases in which there has been a Justice DeWine-Attorney General DeWine connection was subsequently expanded upon during the disciplinary counsel process.

Justice DeWine had taken the oath just days before Mr. Coll personally argued his appeal before the high court in a case where an assistant attorney general represented the state, the complaint alleges.

Instead of fully disclosing past motor vehicle violations as requested in his bar application, Mr. Coll, part Puerto Rican and Dominican, wrote racially tinged comments, apparently about the police.

Justice DeWine was part of the 5-2 majority that blocked him from taking the bar last year but left the door open for him to reapply in 2018. Mr Coll has not yet done so.

The two dissenting judges wanted to block him permanently. Mr. Coll had argued before the court that he had been exercising his right to free speech.

While it was noted that Justice DeWine did not recuse himself in the Coll case or a number of other cases involving attorneys from his father’s office, he did recuse himself from a case related to records in several Pike County murders. The attorney general was heavily and publicly involved in the latter case.

While stopping short of alleging actual impropriety, the complaint suggests the justice violated a judicial canon requiring him to avoid the “appearance of impropriety.”

“Reasonable minds could conclude that there is at least the appearance of impropriety when [Justice DeWine] hears and decides his father’s cases, especially in this sensitive time period when his father is also running for governor,” reads the complaint filed through Bradley N. Frick, a Columbus attorney appointed to serve as special disciplinary counsel in the case.

“To conclude that the father-son relationship has no impact on [Justice DeWine] would be to ignore basic human nature,” the complaint reads.

Three appeals court judges found probable cause of a violation, referring the case to the Board of Professional Conduct. Another panel of judges has been selected by lot to hold a hearing into the allegations.

Justice DeWine has taken the position that he can participate in cases involving his father’s office as long as his father isn’t personally arguing the case.

“The voters of Ohio knew my father was attorney general when they sent me to the Supreme Court,” he said in a written statement. “They did not perceive any conflict in a father and son serving in these two positions, and I think the voters were correct.”

He said he sought legal advice from the high court’s ethics expert before launching his campaign as well as another legal expert he identified as a former appeals court judge.

“I have followed that advice to the letter,” he said.

The issue was raised during the 2016 campaign, including by Justice DeWine’s Democratic opponent, northeast Ohio appellate Judge Cynthia Rice. The Republican former Cincinnati appeals court judge garnered 56 percent of the vote to Judge Rice’s 44 percent.

A review of records with the secretary of state’s office showed that Mr. Frick contributed to Judge Rice’s Supreme Court campaign. 

The case also alleges that Justice DeWine violated judicial ethics by using his influence in asking Republican Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to find an internship slot for his son, Matt. The prosecutor’s office has also had cases before the high court.

Mark Weaver, spokesman for Justice DeWine, said a different judicial ethical standard would be in play in cases in which the justice’s father would be a direct party in a case which could happen if he is elected governor.

He also said that Attorney General DeWine’s office was not involved in Mr. Coll’s case before the Supreme Court.

“That’s provably false,” he said. “That’s just how sloppy Mr. Frick’s complaint is.”

In cases involving other judges, the Supreme Court would typically sit in judgment and have the final word on ethical violations. But because the accused is one of its own, three judges have been selected by lot to hold a hearing.

The selected judges were Fairfield Municipal Court Judge Joyce A. Campbell, Mercer County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey R. Ingraham, and Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Michael Krumholz.

Meanwhile, a separate complaint has been filed with the Office of Disciplinary Council targeting Justice Terrence O’Donnell, urging him to recuse himself from a case to be argued on Feb. 13 before the court in connection with the recently closed Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

The complaint was filed by ProgressOhio and Common Cause Ohio, citing political contributions from ECOT founder William Lager and the justice’s 2013 commencement speech at the school. ECOT, the state’s largest online school, closed its doors two weeks ago, but it continues to appeal rulings allowing the state to claw back some $80 million in state aid.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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