COLUMBUS — The death of former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank D. Celebrezze last week officially closed the book on an era.
Perhaps the most controversial justice to ever sit on the court, he was the last incumbent to be ousted from the bench by voters two dozen years ago.
The 1986 election that brought in Republican Chief Justice Thomas Moyer is still looked at as the point at which seats on the state's highest court ceased to be an election afterthought. That contest is partly credited with turning elections for the bench into record-shattering multimillion-dollar campaigns that would eventually make Ohio a poster-child for judicial election spending.
It also could be considered the point that galvanized Ohio's business community into turning what at one time was a 6-1 Democratic-majority court into what is today a 7-0 Republican monopoly.
“There had been a lot of activist rulings for several years leading into that, but we were starting to see people focusing more on the court, a lot more than what they had for decades before,” said Ohio Chamber of Commerce President Andy Doehrel. “I think there was a much more heightened awareness of what a court ruling could do in the context of changing and impacting law.”
Mr. Celebrezze, a state senator and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge before winning a Supreme Court seat in 1972, was hailed by friends in labor and himself as the voice of the common man on the court.
“During his 14 years on the Ohio Supreme Court, Chief Justice Celebrezze brought to the court a high degree of compassion for Ohioans of all walks of life, as well as effective leadership for his fellow justices,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern.
But in the words of his 1986 opponent, future Chief Justice Moyer, he was “a chief justice who sees the world in terms of his friends and enemies and decides cases based upon who he perceives his friends and enemies to be.”
There were accusations that he politicized the court. He settled out of court a libel suit he filed against the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer after it published stories alleging that he accepted campaign contributions from union locals tied to organized crime. There were later indictments related to organized crime influences in Cleveland-area labor locals, but no charges were ever filed against the former chief justice.
Mr. Celebrezze lost a fight against cancer last week at the age of 81.
Former Justice Andy Douglas' tenure on the high court overlapped with Mr. Celebrezze for two years.
“Some of the folks he had around him were a bit disconcerting as shown by latter day events,” Mr. Douglas said. “But for the most part I enjoyed serving with him. We were political adversaries, and that made on occasion for some unpleasant times, but I always respected his dedication to service and his grasp of the law in many difficult cases where he was called upon to decide.
“May he rest in peace,” Mr. Douglas said. “He earned his reward.”
While the chief justice campaign of 1986 may have been the point at which the backlash really began to roll, the beginning of the end of Democratic domination of the high court could be traced back two years earlier when the chief justice's brother, Justice James Celebrezze, and another Democrat were defeated.
With Chief Justice Moyer's election in 1986, the court shifted to a 4-3 Republican majority.
“The Republican cycle was beginning,” said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. “The Moyer election was part of the beginning. Celebrezze was certainly a factor, but I don't know how much of an extent that played in subsequent Republican victories. There was a much broader ideological shift at play,” Mr. Green said.
The newfound Republican majority was short-lived. The court shifted again to the Democrats favor with the addition of Justice Alice Robie Resnick of Ottawa Hills to the court in 1988.
The partisan makeup of the court would change over time. But while Republicans eventually would regain and hold their partisan majority, the court's philosophical majority, a combination of Democrats and Republicans, continued to frustrate Ohio's business community with rulings broadening workers' compensation and insurance benefits and rejecting legislative attempts to limit jury awards in product liability and personal injury litigation.
Since failing in 2000 in its full-court press to oust then-Justice Resnick, the business community has had a perfect record in helping to elect Republicans to the court. The philosophical shift it had long sought finally occurred with the election of Justice Maureen O'Connor in 2002.
Today, the court is 7-0 Republican, but the current philosophical majority appears to be 6-1 as evidenced by last week's latest ruling involving workers' compensation and the ability of workers to sue employers for what they claim are preventable injuries. The court had twice before, most recently in 1999, struck down legislative attempts to make such suits more difficult. This time the court's majority upheld the latest law. The sole holdout: Justice Paul Pfeifer, the only survivor of that old 4-3 majority.
Contact Jim Provance at:firstname.lastname@example.org 614-221-0496.