Sunday, January 8, 2023
Who Serves on the Bench Matters
As lawyers and appellate advocates, we trust that the rule of law will prevail – that there will be consequences for breaching contracts, for negligence that injures another person, and for violating constitutionally guaranteed rights. We trust that judges will be impartial and apply the law within a range of accepted conclusions that may not always be right but with an error rate that maintains confidence in the justice system. We believe that the law should not differ because of who serves on the bench because all who do must adhere to the rule of law. And yet, we know that who serves often will make all the difference.
We engage in ideologically tinged battles over who serves on the bench, regardless of whether the path to a judgeship is through appointment or election. Appellate advocates tailor their arguments to the judges who hear a case, combing their past opinions and other writings for clues that might trigger a favorable response for their client or issue. Some judges have expertise on the subject of the appeal, while others do not. Some have staked out positions on the appellate issue that makes the appellate task easier or even insuperable. Some utilize a methodology or a hierarchy of interests that signal the approach a wise advocate should take. A one-time dissenting view can now fit within the mainstream of legal thinking so that it provides a new handle on addressing an issue. That is why advocates are well-advised to know their audiences.
Court memberships shift, and the likely result from a court can shift with it. In an end-of-the-year decision from the Ohio Supreme Court, the justices’ own awareness of that shift was on display. In full disclosure, I was the winning advocate in the case and had the opportunity to watch it play out. By virtue of the mandatory retirement requirements of the state, the chief justice was due to step down from the court on December 31. I argued the case, which challenged the constitutionality of a state statute both facially and as applied, in late March. The decision, striking the law as applied, was written by the chief justice for a 4-3 majority and issued December 16. One dissenter appended a paragraph to the decision complaining of a departure from what he called the “regular and orderly internal rules of operation and practice,” because the majority insisted on issuing the decision so that the current court, rather than its successor, would rule on any motion for reconsideration. He added his apology to the “citizens of Ohio that my individual dissent is not of the quality that I have come to deliver and that the public expects” because his “time on this case was aberrantly and improperly limited.”
That paragraph became the focus of the motion for reconsideration filed just within the deadline on the evening of December 27. It seemed apparent that both the majority and the dissenter were well aware of the consequences of pushing reconsideration off to the new year and the new court. The majority sought to assure that a reconsideration motion would come before the same court that decided the case; the dissenter sought to push the case to the new term where he believed a different membership would reach a different result and his dissent could become the decision of the court.
Taking no chances, I filed my opposition to reconsideration within hours of the motion’s filing so awaiting opposition would not provide an excuse to delay a ruling. On December 29, reconsideration was denied.
The episode demonstrates what we know as advocates: who sits on the bench makes a difference. It also confirms another thing we know – judges are as acutely aware of that as anyone else.
 Brandt v. Pompa, 2022-Ohio-4525, ¶ 132 reconsideration denied, 2022-Ohio-4786 (Fisher, J., dissenting).