COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, the longest-serving current state Supreme Court chief justice in the United States, died Friday at age 70.
Moyer was admitted to a Columbus hospital Thursday morning after experiencing gastrointestinal problems and died Friday afternoon, court spokesman Chris Davey said. Over the past few months Moyer had health problems that weren’t believed to be life-threatening.
Moyer, the second-longest-serving Ohio chief justice in state history, became chief justice in 1987. He had planned to retire after finishing his current term at the end of the year.
Justice Robert Cupp, a Lima native who has been on the supreme court since 2007, said Moyer’s death was a shock.
“He presided over the oral arguments on Tuesday and Wednesday and was a little thin, but certainly there was no expectation that it was life threatening.”
“He’s been sort of shaping the legal system and judiciary in Ohio for a long time. It’s going to be very strange without him as our chief justice”
Beyond his legal influence, Cupp said Moyer was just a “very nice person.”
“He had really no ego. He was very approachable. No pretense. Very genuine,” Cupp said.
His soft-spoken manner shaped his leadership style, Cupp said.
“It’s one thing to be he head or spokesman of the court, but he also had six other justices to hear,” Cupp said. “He was like a gentle shepherd. He led with a nudge here and a suggestion there.”
Justice Paul Pfeifer, who met Moyer when both were students at the Ohio State University law school, said he and his colleagues were brought to tears.
“It’s just a huge tragedy for all of us and a great loss for his family and for the citizens of Ohio,” he said. “He was the quintessential image, and not just image but the reality of dignity of the office of chief justice, and of the role of the courts in our society.”
Pfeifer said Moyer’s health had deteriorated over the past weeks but he was in court on Tuesday, despite looking “very ill,” and returned Wednesday looking much better.
“I am so disappointed for him and his family that we weren’t able to do ... a very grand party at the end of his 24 years as chief justice,” Pfeifer said. “He was deprived of that honor, but knowing Tom he also would have been proud of himself to be able to preside right up to the end of his life.”
Among the influential cases Moyer oversaw was one through which the court three times declared Ohio’s school funding system unconstitutional.
Bill Phillis, who led the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which fought Ohio’s school funding formula before the court, praised Moyer’s conduct.
“He was always an honorable person. There was never any question about the integrity of Tom Moyer,” he said. “That’s not to say we agreed with Tom ... but you never questioned his honesty and integrity.”
Among Moyer’s main efforts was to change the way judges are selected in Ohio. He had been pushing for a constitutional amendment requiring the appointment of state Supreme Court justices, rather that selection through election, because he believed having judges seek large campaign donations tainted the legal system.
“It doesn’t support the fundamental principle of judges acting fairly and impartially,” Moyer told The Associated Press in December.
Catherine Turcer, campaign finance director for Ohio Citizen Action, a grassroots consumer advocacy group, called Moyer a good advocate for changing the system.
“I really admired that because that’s not easy to do,” she said. “Here he is, he’s the chief justice and he’s saying, ‘Hey, there’s something really wrong here. We need to stop combining money and judges.’ To say, ‘Hey, we need to completely change things,’ that’s not easy.”
Ohio State University law professor Marc Spindelman, who argued cases before the court, said Moyer would take time from his busy schedule to speak to students.
“This is a reeling loss for the court. The chief justice was a great statesman, in addition to being an absolutely hardworking public servant and just a very decent human being,” Spindelman said. “He was the court’s moderating impulse.”
Moyer also had worked to adopt out-of-court conflict resolution strategies and to bring interpreters into the courts for non-English speakers. He assisted other courts across the nation and world, including those in China, Argentina and Ukraine.
Associated Press Statehouse Correspondent Julie Carr Smyth and The Lima News staff contributed to this report.