COLUMBUS — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Brown fully expected a learning curve if he was elected on Nov. 2 to replace Thomas Moyer, the longest-serving chief justice in the nation.
He just didn't expect it to come so quickly.
"I knew when I decided to run for this office that he was going to be retiring at the end of the year after 24 years of service,'' he said. "He cast a huge shadow, and I knew he was going to be a tough act to follow. I welcomed that.
"But when in April he passed suddenly and unexpectedly, that presented an even greater challenge,'' he said. "Not only was I stepping in to succeed him after all those years of service, I was doing so under particularly challenging circumstances … I needed to provide continuity, to be respectful of the staff, and provide them with appropriate time to grieve their loss.''
He said he believes he's accomplished that.
Gov. Ted Strickland had recruited the then-Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, former assistant attorney general, and former Mayfield City school board member to run for the job that Chief Justice Moyer was being forced to vacate because of age. The governor appointed him to the post after the chief justice's unexpected death.
It not only made Chief Justice Brown the highest-ranking judge in the state, it made him the only Democrat on the highest court, and put him in the position of running against a fellow justice, Republican Maureen O'Connor, for the job.
Justice O'Connor has been sharply critical of her opponent, the only one of four candidates for two competitive justice seats on the ballot not to be rated "highly recommended'' by the Ohio State Bar Association. The bar simply rated Chief Justice Brown "recommended.''
"We are a rudderless ship,'' Justice O'Connor said. "There's no leadership or direction … There's no effort to build consensus, camaraderie, or collegiality.''
Chief Justice Brown, 57, dismissed that suggestion and called it "unfortunate'' and "political'' that his colleague went over his head to present her own court cost-cutting plan to a legislative panel.
"That's certainly her right like any other citizen, but it's not how I would operate,'' he said. "It was not a collaborative approach … She has yet to provide me with a copy of that to this day.''
He said he is the process of working with court staff to respond to Mr. Strickland's request that the court voluntarily provide scenarios for a flat budget or a 10 percent cut for the next two years. In contrast with his opponent, he said he will work in conjunction with the other justices, including Justice O'Connor.
"My temperament and demeanor are well-suited to serve as judge and chief justice,'' Chief Justice Brown said. "I'm very patient. I listen carefully. It's part of my management style.''
The only Democrat surrounded by six Republicans, the chief justice talks a lot about diversity on the court. But he said diversity goes beyond partisan labels.
"That is one dimension, and it is a dimension that does matter,'' he said. "Having a mix of people on the court is important. I learned about that during my 15 years as a [Mayfield City] school board member. Having a variety of experiences and backgrounds improves the decision-making and the debate and brings up a lot more factors to consider.''
He said it also helps to instill public trust.
"When the court sometimes deals with political or election issues, if there's not balance, even if the result is proper, the public sometimes raises questions,'' Chief Justice Brown said. "That obviously played itself out in the presidential decision [by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000]. It played out in Ohio when the Ohio Supreme Court created from nothing an exception for executive privilege for Gov. Bob Taft with respect to records and did so fairly broadly.''
As an assistant attorney general under former Republican Attorney General Betty Montgomery, he said he was heavily involved in the multistate lawsuit that Ohio joined against major tobacco companies such as Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, a suit that ultimately netted the state a settlement in the billions.