COLUMN BY: Soon-to-be-Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer
The New Year is almost upon us, and with that flip of the calendar we’ll also turn a new page here at the Ohio Supreme Court: two of the seven justices will be retiring. One of them is Judith Ann Lanzinger. The other one is me. Justices cannot begin a new term beyond the age of 70. After 24 years, Father Time has finally caught me—I’ll be hanging up my robe when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.
It’s been a fulfilling journey. By my count, I’ve served with 17 different justices. It’s no surprise that, after this long, no one who was on the bench when I arrived in 1993 is still here today.
Thomas J. Moyer was the Chief Justice for my first 18 years. He was set to retire at the end of 2010. With 24 years under his belt, he was the second-longest serving chief in Ohio history. Sadly, he passed away in April 2010, less than a month shy of his 71st birthday.
From the time he took over in 1986, Tom instilled professionalism and collegiality to the court with his quiet, dignified manner. At his memorial I said that I didn’t think I ever knew anyone who loved his job as much as Tom loved being chief, and who did it so well.
Tom was two years ahead of me in law school at Ohio State in the early 1960s. I’m sure our classmates and professors never imagined that one day we’d be collaborating on cases that future law students would be forced to read.
His proudest moment probably came in 2004, when the court moved into a beautifully restored 1930s-era building. Tom was the guiding force behind the restoration and the move into the building that now bears his name and will be the court’s home for generations to come.
Maureen O’Connor, who was already an associate justice, had been planning to run for Moyer’s seat when he retired. As it turned out, she ran against—and defeated—Tom’s interim replacement, Eric Brown. It wasn’t easy succeeding the man whose name is on the building, but Maureen, the first woman to serve as chief, took over with confidence, and the transition ran smoothly. We really never skipped a beat.
In 1993, there was only one woman on the court—Alice Robie Resnick. Always a trailblazer, Alice was the second woman ever elected to the Ohio Supreme Court; now there are four women and three men.
In my early years I briefly served with Asher Sweeney, a gracious man who has since passed away. Asher was a contemporary of two of the biggest characters I ever served with, Craig Wright and Andy Douglas. Craig was a gregarious, bear-like man with a booming voice who always fought hard for what he believed. After he retired in 1996, Craig stayed active in the legal profession before passing away, too soon, in 2010.
Andy Douglas could be a fiery, passionate opponent or, at other times, a valuable, loyal ally. He retired in 2002, but at 84 he’s still going strong—earlier this year Andy argued a case in front of our court.
Francis Sweeney and I were elected the same year, and we became good friends instantly. When he retired in 2004, I wrote of him in a farewell column: “The true measure of a man is not what people will say about him in public, but rather what they say—or don’t say—about him behind his back. In that regard, Francis is an extraordinary man. I have never heard anyone utter a disparaging word about him, and in this business that is truly remarkable.”
If people are directed by an internal moral compass, then Francis’s compass was set to true north by the Jesuits who taught him in high school and college. Once, while discussing religion, Francis said to me, “You know Paul, there are many indiscretions in this life that are sins, but the biggest sin of all is not helping your fellow man when you have an opportunity to do so.” Sadly, Francis didn’t get to enjoy a long retirement. He died in 2011.
Deborah Cook left here when she was appointed to the federal court of appeals. Evelyn Lundberg Stratton departed the court early to work on veterans’ affairs and mental health issues. Yvette McGee Brown lost her reelection, but landed well at a big law firm. And Bob Cupp returned to the state legislature, a job he always enjoyed. Happily, I keep in touch with all four of them.
My current colleagues are an interesting group with diverse backgrounds. I spoke recently at the swearing-in ceremony for new lawyers, and my message to them was, even if you think you have your future all planned, you never know where your life and career will take you.
I recounted the early jobs of the people I serve with now, before they got into the legal profession. Justice William O’Neill was an army officer in Vietnam, and later worked as a Columbus television reporter. Justice Judith French worked at McDonald’s in high school and college before getting her law degree. Justice Sharon Kennedy waited tables at a Steak ‘n Shake. After college she became a police officer for the Hamilton, Ohio Police Department.
At 19, Justice Lanzinger joined the Sisters of St. Francis, but she left the order, got an English degree and taught school. Justice Terrence O’Donnell, the fellow who looks like a judge ought to look, was a speech instructor at a community college. And Chief Justice O’Connor was a lifeguard and swimming instructor. After college she was “a substitute teacher by day, a waiter by night.”
As I told the newly-minted lawyers, life takes unexpected twists and turns. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to be a Supreme Court justice. But for 24 years I was privileged to serve the people of Ohio, and I count myself blessed to have worked with such an outstanding group of people.