COLUMBUS - History came full circle yesterday as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court touted the wisdom of a predecessor 70 years earlier in pushing for construction of a court building independent of the other branches of government.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 79, made his remarks as Gov. Bob Taft, great-grandson of that predecessor, William Howard Taft, sat in the ornate, red-and-gold courtroom of the new Ohio Supreme Court, its first independent home in the state's 201-year history.
"At about the same time that our court building was being constructed in Washington, this handsome building was going up here in Columbus," Chief Justice Rehnquist told a dedication ceremony crowd of about 350 packed into the courtroom and an overflow of hundreds more watching the events on exterior screens.
"Seventy years later, this building has been beautifully refurbished to house your court," he said. "Were he here today, I'm sure that Chief Justice Taft would be pleased to see that the Supreme Court of his home state finally has a building to itself just as he would be surely as pleased to see one of his [great] grandsons as the present governor of the state."
The 15-story, white-marbled former Ohio Departments Building originally opened in 1933. The Art Deco building overlooking the Scioto River was recently restored with a budget of $85.6 million.
During a luncheon, Chief Justice Rehnquist, first appointed to the court by President Nixon in 1972, noted he spent his sole night in jail in Ohio.
A struggling scholarship student at Kenyon College in 1942, he showed up at Kent State University in hopes of borrowing money from a high-school friend. Lacking funds for a hotel, he slept on the lawn of the county courthouse in Ravenna. Police rousted him and booked him into the jail for the night.
The celebration of what Ohio Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moyer characterized as a dream come true drew controversy.
In a story first reported Thursday by The Blade, American Electric Power, at the state court's request, flew Chief Justice Rehnquist to and from Columbus on its corporate jet.
Environmental groups questioned the propriety of the move given that both courts have ruled or could rule on cases involving the utility. The state court plans to pay for the flights, provided by AEP at an estimated cost of $3,800, and other dedication expenses from a $75 fee paid by about 670 people who attended the luncheon.
"While Ohio schools remain under-funded, our Supreme Court chief justice is focused on operating a luxurious new $86 million courthouse, and securing corporate jets to shuttle his guest of honor to the dedication ceremony," said retired Cleveland Municipal Judge Ellen Connally, Chief Justice Moyer's Democratic opponent in November's election.
This marks the second potential conflict-of-interest raised by environmental groups involving the nation's high court and the energy industry. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule soon on whether Vice President Dick Cheney must reveal what went on behind closed doors when the Bush Administration fashioned its energy policy.
Justice Antonin Scalia refused to remove himself from the case after it was revealed Mr. Cheney, a former oil executive, had provided free corporate jet transportation for a hunting trip they took together.
Justice Moyer drew laughs in his sole reference to the AEP controversy.
"I've been asked a number of times how did we get Justice Rehnquist to come to Ohio for the dedication ceremony," he said. "We provided transportation, for one thing.
"It seemed the appropriate thing to do."
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