COLUMBUS - When Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court swoops in and out of Ohio tomorrow to dedicate the state's new 15-story judicial center, he will fly on American Electric Power's corporate jet.
"AEP will be reimbursed for the cost of that," said Ohio Supreme Court spokesman Chris Davey. "We are hoping to save a little money because AEP has agreed to do it at cost."
Catherine Turcer, of government watchdog Ohio Citizen Action, said flying a U.S. Supreme Court justice on a corporate jet at another court's request, even at cost, doesn't look good.
"I have a friend in Washington that I'd love to fly out here, but I can't call up AEP and ask for the plane," she said. "Clearly, this is a favor. All businesses, including AEP, have things they need or want from the courts. I know Justice Rehnquist doesn't want to say more by the way he travels than with any speech he gives."
She noted that AEP and other utilities are defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act by their Ohio power plants. The case could work its way up the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Who should Ohio citizens be more upset with, a for-profit company providing the plane or the Ohio Supreme Court for wiring the deal?" asked Jack Shaner, lobbyist for the Ohio Environmental Council.
About 650 people have paid $75 each, for a total of about $49,000, to attend a post-dedication luncheon a block away at the Ohio Statehouse. The court believes that should cover the costs of the luncheon, the dedication ceremony to be attended by 1,100 people, and AEP's cost to deliver the chief justice to Columbus, where the utility is headquartered.
The court has received commitments from charitable foundations of several Ohio metropolitan bar associations to cover cost overruns if there are any, said Mr. Davey.
"It was important to [Ohio] Chief Justice [Thomas] Moyer that we find a way to appropriately recognize this once-in-a-lifetime historic event without burdening the taxpayers of Ohio," he said.
AEP spokesman Melissa McHenry said the company is "accommodating a request from the Ohio Supreme Court" and estimated the "incremental" cost to the court for the flight to be approximately $3,800.
The "incremental" cost would not include the salaries of pilots or other fixed costs that would be paid regardless of whether the plane left the ground Saturday.
"This is not a favor," said Mr. Davey. "This is a service that is being provided for a charge. On a daily basis, we acquire our electricity from American Electric Power, and we pay for that. We purchase supplies and furniture in the course of doing business and it is never raised that that is somehow improper or would be an issue if the vendor ever appeared before the court."
U.S. Supreme Court spokesman Kathy Arberg said the chief justice had nothing to do with the flight arrangements.
"Arrangements for justices' travel and accommodations are made by the inviting organization," she said. "That's provided for in the Judicial Code of Conduct."
Mr. Davey noted that security issues and Chief Justice Rehnquist's knee problem made a commercial flight impractical.
"The President of the United States does not fly on commercial airlines and generally neither does the chief justice of the United States," he said.
Chief Justice Rehnquist, 79, was nominated to the nation's highest court by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1972 and was promoted to chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Weather permitting, he will deliver his keynote address on the riverfront terrace outside the 71-year-old, white-marbled, former Ohio Departments Building, recently restored with a budget of $85.6 million.
The Art Deco building, which houses other court-related offices, marks the first home of the Ohio Supreme Court independent of the executive and legislative branches of government.
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