A little over 22 years ago, Thomas Moyer and Frank Celebrezze made Ohio a poster-child for judicial election spending. Ironically, within a span of 2½ weeks, both have died.
Moyer died Friday at the age of 70, while Celebrezze, 81, passed away March 21.
One word — “heated” — best describes the 1987 race between the two. Celebrezze, who was perhaps the most controversial judge ever to sit on the bench in Ohio, constantly felt the sting of Moyer’s criticism leading up to the election. At one point, Moyer called Celebrezze “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.” He accused Celebrezze having links to organized crime, and newspapers reported how Celebrezze used the lawyer disciplinary system to punish enemies.
Many political pundits cite that contest as the beginning of record-shattering multimillion-dollar Supreme Court campaigns. It saw Ohio’s business community banding together to turn what at one time was a 6-1 Democratic-majority court into what has been a 7-0 Republican monopoly the last eight years.
Democrats will no doubt regain one of those seats as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is in charge of filling the position. Speculation has the frontrunners as Ohio State University law school dean Nancy H. Rogers or Franklin County Probate Judge Eric Brown.
The person who gets the job will be following a legend. After beating Celebrezze, Moyer bestowed a sense of calm over the court when it desperately needed it. He served 22 years and was the longest was the longest-sitting stat chief justice in the United States at the time of his death. He had planned to retire at the end of this term.
The hallmark case of his tenure was the court’s three-time declaration that Ohio’s school funding system was unconstitutional.
Most recently, Moyer received headlines when he said the U.S. was facing one of its greatest threats since the Civil War as he called out the “common law,” or patriot movement.
Moyer deserves credit for his progressive leadership.
He called for tougher discipline for judges and advocated a merit selection of them to replace elections. He also said Ohio’s courts were becoming “too litigious” and sought a better way to deal with the overload of civil cases. He proposed using alternatives such as having volunteer legal experts help people resolve their differences outside of court.
Moyer’s soft-spoken manner shaped his leadership style.
“He was like a gentle shepherd. He led with a nudge here and a suggestion there,” said Justice Robert Cupp, of Lima.
Beyond his legal influence, Cupp said Moyer was just a “very nice person” who “had really no ego. He was very approachable. No pretense. Very genuine.”
Moyer grew up in Sandusky and those who knew him the longest told the Sandusky Register he never got caught up in fame and power.
“He understood the tremendous responsibility of his office. He never changed. He was just as kind, generous and intelligent from the time he was in high school to Supreme Court justice,” said Sandusky Attorney Dennis Murray, who graduated with Moyer from Sandusky High School in 1957.
Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter agreed.
“He wasn’t someone who lectured you or dominated the conversation. He wouldn’t talk to you, but would discuss things with you. I always appreciated that.”
Editorial: Thomas Moyer returned civility to Ohio Supreme Court