“Reflections” By Retiring Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Justice Pfeifer’s final column as a member of the Ohio Supreme Court. We have enjoyed the wonderful stories he has shared with our readers. We hope you have taken the time to enjoy them also. We wish him well!……….

On January 2, 1993, I was sworn in as the newest member of the Ohio Supreme Court.  In a few days, my fourth-and-final six-year term will come to an end.  A quarter century has passed quickly.

When you’ve been around as long as I have, the numbers sort of start to pile up.  I’m currently the longest-serving justice on the court, and our court staff indicates only five other justices in the court’s 214-year history have served longer.  During my time on the court, by my rough estimate, I have cast more than 70,000 votes and authored more than 1,000 majority opinions, concurrences and dissents.

It was never my life-long goal to become a Supreme Court justice.  In 1992, as I was wrapping up my fourth term in the Ohio Senate and trying to decide what was next in my life, I was approached by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Thomas J. Moyer, and his fellow justices Andy Douglas and Craig Wright, urging me to run for the open seat on the court.

I had my doubts.  After so many years in the legislature, where the battles could be furious and invigorating, I feared the cloistered environment at the court would be stifling and dull.  But Moyer, who I had known since our days in law school at Ohio State, promised me that I would be stimulated by what he called a “daily intellectual feast.”

He wasn’t wrong.  There was a never-ending stream of cases that came before the court on a vast array of topics.  There was no such thing as a routine case.  Even the subjects that we saw all the time—such as tax appeals or workers’ compensation cases—consistently provided a unique set of circumstances to be resolved.

While I have always maintained that every case was important to the litigants involved, some were undeniably of greater magnitude than others, such as the landmark school funding case, DeRolph v. State.  Our first opinion in that case, in which we held that the state’s method of funding public schools was unconstitutional, was published in 1997.  After multiple appeals by the state, the fourth and final opinion in DeRolph was published 12 years later, when we finally relinquished jurisdiction.

We also saw a steady stream of death penalty cases, and I have a rather unique history with that law.  In 1981, while I was a state senator, I helped craft Ohio’s death penalty statute.  By the time I arrived here, I was growing troubled with the law’s unequal application.  I saw it as a “death lottery,” dependent on geography and the attitude of a particular prosecutor toward death sentences.  While I never let my personal feelings interfere with administering the law as it was written, I have no qualms now saying that it’s time we got rid of the death penalty in Ohio.

Supreme Court justices speak primarily through their written opinions—they are the record, the legacy we leave behind.  When I arrived here, I had two goals in mind for my writing—be brief and be interesting.  While brevity was often dictated by the complexity of a case, and “interesting” could be dependent on subject matter, lawyers and judges generally agreed that I achieved what I set out to do.

Just this week, when Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was interviewed about my departure, she paid me a wonderful compliment.  The Columbus Dispatch article noted that “Pfeifer…became known as one of the court’s best writers, particularly in his sharply worded dissents.”  Chief Justice O’Conner concurred, saying, “Rather than beat around the bush, which isn’t Paul’s style, he went right after the majority’s argument and stated his case plainly, clearly, and often in a clever way.  Even when we disagreed, his dissents shined a light on the court’s work.”

Beyond speaking through my opinions, I also wrote a weekly newspaper column.  My goal with the column was to explain our work here, examine the cases we reviewed and provide insight into our decision-making process.

I have only one regret: the breaking up of my team here at the court.  I have been richly blessed with a wonderful staff.  Sandy Messer has been my assistant going all the way back to my Ohio Senate days.  She has kept me organized, (mostly) on time and in line.  Kevin Diehl has helped me research and maintain my weekly column for more than two decades.  And my two law clerks—Jim Sheridan and Bob Burpee—have been my stalwarts.  Jim has been with me since my first day on the court, and Bob nearly so.  Together, we have collaborated on every one of those 1,000-plus opinions.  Our close working relationship has given me a consistent voice in my writing.  Whatever accolades are directed at me should also be directed toward them.

Combined, these four—Sandy, Jim, Bob and Kevin—have been with me for over 100 years.  They are bright, gentle, caring people who always understood that we were here to serve the citizens of this great state.  More than anything, I find it most difficult saying goodbye to them.

Although I’m leaving the court, I’m not going terribly far.  I have been named executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference.  The Conference is the conduit for Ohio’s 722 judges to provide input to the General Assembly and the Supreme Court on legislative issues and courtroom rules.  I’m excited for the new opportunity.

This job, this career, has been a rewarding and wonderful experience.  As I leave the court, I leave with an internal satisfaction that’s hard to explain.  It’s all there in those written opinions.  Like an athlete at the end of a career, I look back and realize that I helped deliver some victories for “team Ohio,” and I suffered some disappointing defeats.  But most of all I am content in the belief that I contributed my best judgment and intellectual effort on every matter—large or small—from the first day to the final decision.

Above all, I am grateful to you, the people of Ohio.  I am honored that you have placed your trust in me, and that you have given me the privilege of serving on your highest court.

Thank you and Happy New Year.

WCCOA Kitchen Celebrates its 10th Birthday with an Open House

Wood County Committee on Aging’s Production Kitchen will host an Open House on Friday, January 6, 2017 from 2:30-4 pm……

Bowling Green, OH– Wood County Committee on Aging, Inc. (WCCOA) will be celebrating the 10th Birthday of their Production Kitchen.  The 5400 square foot facility, which was funded in part by a State Capital Grant (secured by Bob Latta and Randy Gardner) and private donations, opened in January of 2007.  At that time the kitchen, which produces meals for all of the Wood County Senior Centers and home delivered meals throughout the county, was preparing 700 meals per day.  In the past 10 years WCCOA has added two additional sites (Pemberville Area and Wayne Area Senior Centers) and has increased production to over 850 meals every day (Monday-Friday).

 

Please join us on Friday, January 6, 2017 from 2:30-4 for an Open House and tour at the WCCOA Production Kitchen, located at 1860 E. Gypsy Lane Road, Bowling Green, OH.

 

About Wood County Committee on Aging

The mission of the Wood County Committee on Aging, Inc., shall be to provide older adults with services and programs which empower them to remain independent and improve the quality of their lives.  WCCOA operates seven senior centers throughout Wood County, Ohio including; North Baltimore Area Senior Center, Northeast Area Senior Center, Pemberville Area Senior Center, Perrysburg Area Senior Center, Rossford Area Senior Center, Wayne Area Senior Center, and the Wood County Senior Center (Bowling Green).

 

For information on meals, programs, or services please contact the Wood County Committee on Aging, Inc., at (419) 353-5661, (800) 367-4935 or www.wccoa.net.

PUCO 2016 end of year review

Highlights from 2016………

Public Utilities Commission of Ohio 2016 year-end review:

 

Asim Z. Haque sworn in as PUCO chairman

In May, Asim Z. Haque was sworn in as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

As chairman, he is the head of the 310-person state agency charged with assuring all residential and business consumers access to adequate, safe and reliable utility services at fair prices, while facilitating an environment that provides competitive choices. Haque’s five-year term ends April 10, 2021.

Haque has served as a commissioner of the PUCO since 2013. Before serving as commissioner at the PUCO, Haque, an attorney, began his professional career at a general practice firm in Columbus where he represented a broad spectrum of clients in energy and utility matters.  He went on to serve as internal legal counsel for a global auto manufacturer, a role he held immediately prior to his first appointment to the Commission.

PUCO fines Columbia Gas of Ohio following home explosion

In January, the PUCO approved an agreement requiring Columbia Gas of Ohio to pay a fine of $200,000, take steps to improve its record keeping and enhance safety outreach throughout its service territory. The penalties are based upon the PUCO staff’s investigation of a March 2015 home explosion in Upper Arlington, Ohio that caused an estimated $9 million in property damage.

The PUCO concluded that Columbia did not follow its operating procedures to properly abandon an old service line, including removing or sealing the valve box and physically disconnecting the service line from its main line.

As part of the agreement, Columbia will enhance its record management by including GPS locations of curb boxes and other infrastructure in its internal records. Columbia will also increase its safety-related public awareness efforts directed towards customers, local officials, first responders and other utilities operating throughout its service territory. Columbia will hold an additional $200,000 in abeyance should it fail to fulfill its obligations under this agreement.

PUCO enforces underground damage prevention laws

Enforcement of Ohio’s underground protection laws began on Jan. 1, 2016. Commercial excavators, utility operators, designers and developers who fail to follow safe digging practices may be subject to penalties and fines.

A state law, passed in 2015, created the Underground Technical Committee (UTC) to increase public safety by ensuring that anyone excavating or operating underground facilities follows safe digging practices.

Since enforcement of the damage prevention law took effect in January 2016, the PUCO has registered 17,282 companies and received 27 valid complaints. So far, 16 of those cases have been decided with 11 still under investigation.

PUCO modifies FirstEnergy electric security plan

The PUCO established an eight-year electric security plan for FirstEnergy’s Ohio electric distribution utilities. FirstEnergy will continue to supply generation service through competitively sourced auctions. The utility will also commit to increased energy efficiency goals, plans to reduce carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 90 percent by 2045, and support grid modernization efforts.

The Commission ordered FirstEnergy’s Ohio utilities to establish PUCO staff’s recommended Distribution Modernization Rider (DMR).

Rider DMR, set at $132.5 million per year (to be grossed up for taxes annually), will provide FirstEnergy with an infusion of capital so that it will be financially healthy enough to make future investments in grid modernization.  The Commission limited Rider DMR to three years, with the possibility of a two-year extension, subject to Commission approval. FirstEnergy requested that Rider DMR be granted in the amount of $558 million per year for eight years.

During the term of rider DMR, FirstEnergy will maintain its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, and make sufficient progress in grid modernization initiatives ordered by the Commission, including its deployment of smart grid technology in the companies’ service territories.

PUCO issues orders on AEP Ohio electric security plan and PPA rider

The PUCO approved an agreement that will allow AEP Ohio to implement a power purchase agreement as it relates to the utility’s stake in the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC) over an eight year term.

The agreement also calls for AEP Ohio to develop 900 megawatts of utility-scale solar and wind electric generation facilities. AEP Ohio will also develop an enhanced grid modernization plan, a carbon reduction plan, and commit to retire, refuel or repower several of AEP’s existing coal-fire electric generation facilities by 2030.

PUCO adopts agreement to improve Just Energy marketing practices

In November, the PUCO adopted an agreement between PUCO staff and Just Energy to implement a compliance program to resolve alleged violations of the competitive retail electric service provider minimum standards and service requirements.

Just Energy will work with PUCO staff to ensure full compliance with PUCO rules and orders, and agrees to pay a forfeiture of $125,000 to the state of Ohio, with an additional $50,000 at the end of 12 months if it fails to complete the compliance program.

The objective of the 12-month compliance program is to avoid the potential for future consumer complaints resulting from Just Energy’s marketing, solicitation and customer enrollment practices.

PUCO charts path to protect submetering customers

In December, the PUCO set the framework to assert regulatory authority over submetering companies or similar entities that charge unreasonably high rates for the resale and redistribution of utility service.

The order enhances the test used by the PUCO to determine whether a submetering company or similar entity is acting as a public utility. If a submetering company or similar entity is charging more than a yet-to-be established percentage threshold above the bill of a similarly-situated default service customer, it will be presumed that the entity is acting as a public utility, thereby subject to PUCO jurisdiction.

The Commission will apply the test, on a case-by-case basis, in complaint cases brought forth by customers of submetering companies or similar entities.

PUCO Call Center saves Ohioans money

The PUCO employs professional customer service representatives who work to address issues customers have with their utility companies. The PUCO learns a great deal from customers who call in with questions and complaints. This information is used to ensure that companies engage in fair and reasonable practices. It also helps the PUCO to formulate rules and regulations.

Each year, the PUCO Call Center receives tens-of-thousands of calls from consumers that need assistance with utility concerns ranging from service disconnection to understanding their bill to mitigating disputes between the consumer and the utility. This year, the PUCO Call Center saved Ohio consumers more than $1.7 million. PUCO Call Center representatives are trained on the most up-to-date utility information and often times can address customer needs in only one phone call.

PUCO issues winter reconnect order for 2016–2017 winter heating season

The Winter Reconnect Order allows customers who have had their home heating service disconnected for nonpayment, or who have been threatened with disconnection, the opportunity to pay a maximum of $175, plus a reconnection fee to restore or maintain their utility service.

Ohioans can use the Winter Reconnect Order once per winter heating season. Customers who use the Winter Reconnect Order are required to make payment arrangements with their natural gas or electric company on the outstanding balance. During the 2015–2016 heating season, more than 246,000 customers utilized the Winter Reconnect Order.

PUCO works to keep Ohio’s highways safe through motor carrier safety inspections

With more than 4 million commercial motor vehicles registered to operate in Ohio, the work of PUCO motor carrier safety inspectors is important in order to keep Ohio’s highways safe. During 2016, the state of Ohio (PUCO and the Ohio State Highway Patrol) conducted 86,388 inspections on commercial motor vehicles.  The inspections resulted in 12 percent of the vehicles and 4 percent of the drivers inspected declared out-of-service.

PUCO awards 10 hazardous materials training grants

In 2016 the PUCO approved 10 hazardous materials training grants totaling $249,596. The grants will be used to train more than 1,700 public safety and emergency services professionals in Ohio.

The PUCO awards hazardous materials planning and training grants to local government subdivisions, educational institutions and state agencies in Ohio. Money for these grants comes from fines paid by hazardous material carriers and shippers. Individual grants are based upon applications to the PUCO and are awarded on a reimbursement basis.

The PUCO has regulatory authority to conduct safety audits and compliance reviews to evaluate the safety records, policies and procedures of motor carriers, including hazardous materials carriers operating in Ohio.

Rail safety upgrades

In 2016, the PUCO rail division was responsible for 98 rail crossing safety improvements. PUCO rail inspectors conducted 7,263 grade crossing inspections checking signage, vegetation and crossing conditions. Safety at railroad crossings has improved greatly in recent years as a result of these activities. The annual number of train-motor vehicle crashes in Ohio has decreased significantly, from 123 in 2001 to 72 in 2015.

PUCO engages Ohioans through outreach

PUCO staff regularly travel throughout the state to educate Ohioans on a variety of utility-related matters, from energy choice to motor carrier regulations to renewable energy, staff members provide their expertise to interested groups throughout the year. In 2016, the PUCO attended more than 550 outreach events and 20 local public hearings reaching thousands of Ohioans.