Monday, April 29, 2013

In Boston-- A Second Test of Justice

Once again, Boston, Massachusetts will test American principles of criminal justice in its response to a public crime involving many victims. The public wants answers to important questions: Why should someone accused of a horrific crime be allowed the presumption of innocence and a defense attorney. When guilt is “obvious?” Why should there even be a trial? 

Although we remember the recent tragedy involving the Boston Marathon, the city was the site of another case, one in which the National Archives has captioned in a lithograph as “the bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on Mar. 5, 1770.” Eight British soldiers stood trial for killing five civilians and wounding six others by firing on a crowd in the so-called “Boston Massacre.” 

Five years before the American Revolution and nearly 30 years before he served as our nation’s second president, John Adams, as a lawyer in private practice , was the defense attorney for the soldiers. Although emotions ran high due to the tension between the colonists and British, the government was insistent on a fair trial for the accused. 

Fundamental to a fair trial was the idea that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. To hold the government to proving its case ensures that the innocent are protected, potentially allowing some guilty to go free; rather than ensuring the guilty are punished, with some of those who are innocent unjustly convicted. As Benjamin Franklin expressed the thought, “it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”. 

Adams’ law practice suffered from his defense of the British soldiers, but later he was to remark that despite the anxiety he suffered it was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.” The jury acquitted six of those accused and two were convicted of manslaughter, a verdict Adams thought “exactly right.” 

The attorney who decides to defend the surviving brother accused of bombing the 2013 Boston Marathon may face misunderstanding and even hostility. But he or she will be in the company of John Adams in upholding a principle that protects us all.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Justice Judy on Jury Duty

Did you know that even a justice or judge can be called to serve jury duty? During the first week in April, I was called to the Lucas County Courthouse to report for jury duty.  In Ohio, citizens are randomly selected for jury service from a list of registered voters or licensed drivers.

I’ve already served once as a juror while a judge. And because it’s my civic duty, when I received the summons this time as a justice, I didn’t hesitate to follow through.  I also wanted to see if the process had changed for jurors in the 14 years or so since I had last served.

Indeed it had, but for the better! The process was much better at respecting our time.  Instead of waiting for hours only to be sent home at the end of the day, our summons told us to call in after 5 p.m. the day before to see if we had to actually report.  My phone call said those in my group who lived in the area covered by Toledo Municipal Court had to appear. 

We also got more information ahead of time. The map on the summons showed where to park (but did not say the amount needed), though the summons could have explained exactly where to enter the courthouse (two of four doors were closed for security). We were told that jurors are able to keep electronic devices, and that the magnetometer is much like airport security. 

When we reported to the jury room at 8:45 a.m., we were given badges and were shown an orientation film sponsored by the Supreme Court for use throughout the state.  The film explained what could be expected if you were selected as a juror.

Our jury manager, Juanita, kept us aware of the progress of the case that might go to trial. We were told that it was a municipal case, which meant 8 jurors would be selected from the 22 of us waiting.  Although the jury room was relatively comfortable with books and TV, no one was required to stay there as long as we wore badges and didn’t talk about jury duty.  Most everyone sat quietly, though.

At 10 a.m. a deputy and manager took us to the municipal court where we met the judge who would try the case. He put the first-timers at ease and let us knows it was a one-day trial, and he expected that a jury would be selected by noon.

In fact it took only until 11:30 a.m. when we were sworn in.  Eight people were randomly selected for questioning on “voir dire.”  The judge told us the defendant had been charged with improper handling of firearms while intoxicated.  He then asked those in the jury box about their employment, and the employment of their spouses and adult children.  He asked what part of town they lived in, whether they had been convicted of a felony, and whether any close friends or family were police officers.  They were asked whether they could consider the testimony of an officer just as any other witness—with no greater or lesser weight.  The judge wanted to know if they had any time or employment concerns, health problems, or any reason why they could not be fair and impartial.  The prosecutor asked questions about gun ownership, and the defense counsel questioned them on the meaning of the presumption of innocence.  Only three people were excused on peremptory challenges – one by the state and two by defense, and it felt like a lottery when a new person was chosen to replace someone.

When the jury was finally selected, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and gladly returned to common pleas to be signed out.  Some people asked for and were given letters for work.  We turned in paperwork and were told to call in again after 5 p.m., but that we would probably not be needed.  She was right—my jury service of two days or one trial was over.

This past week, the Ohio Judicial College and Ohio Jury Management Association held their annual jury management course.  This year, four people who served on a jury were asked to comment on their experiences.  I wish I was one of them.

Statistics show that the United States holds 95% of the jury trials in the world that 5 million citizen’s report and approximately 1 million serve each year.  Unless you’re a judge, lawyer, court employee, party to a civil case, or a criminal defendant, this is the one chance you have to be a participant in the court process.

But as my experience shows, it is very possible that even if you show up, you will not be seated.  No one is automatically excused anymore because of having a certain occupation. So many people wonder — shouldn’t I try to get out of it?  Isn’t it just a waste of my time?  Before you answer, ask yourself:

If I ever need a jury, wouldn’t I want someone like me to be judging my case??

Friday, April 5, 2013

How are Judges Like Umpires?

With spring training recently concluded -- are you ready for another analogy, sports fans?

Ohio’s Major League Baseball teams opened their seasons this week.  I have often thought that judges, especially those on the trial courts, are very like umpires who call the balls and strikes in ballparks across the nation.

Just like the umpire, the judge is a decider.  Trial judges decide all the time.  When parties are competing in court, one or the other may make a motion.  The judge decides whether to grant or overrule the motion.  At trial, a party can object to evidence.  The judge decides whether to admit or exclude it.  If a jury trial was waived, the judge may have to decide if a defendant is guilty or not guilty. There are many line calls for judges.

Even on the Supreme Court, we make calls as appellate judges.  For parties that ask us to review a case, we decide if it is the type of case that we should take in for review.  We decide if it has public or great general interest.  And after briefs and oral argument, we vote whether to affirm or reverse the earlier court’s judgment.

And just like an umpire, the judge must operate by the rule book.  Sometimes a decision has to be made quickly, like most of those made on the ball diamond.  And like the best umpires, the best judges try to be fair and impartial making their important decisions every day.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Happy 210th Birthday, Supreme Court Judges!

Today we celebrate the beginning of the first terms of the first three men to serve on the Supreme Court of Ohio. Return Jonathan Meigs Jr., William Sprigg and Samuel Huntington were appointed by the General Assembly in 1803. The three, all in their thirties were well-connected lawyers at the time of their appointment. Meigs and Huntington were Yale men from Connecticut and Sprigg was born in Maryland. Each man served for a time as a territorial judge: Meigs in the Northwest, Louisiana and Michigan, Huntington and Sprigg in the Orleans territory, and Sprigg also in Illinois and Missouri. Although none was an Ohio native, two of the judges had eventual namesakes in their adopted state: Meigs County in southeastern Ohio and Sprigg township in Adams County.

Here is a bit more about each. 

Return Jonathan Meigs Jr. 

Meigs was the first chief judge (the term justice was not used until the Modern Courts Amendment in 1968). A revolutionary hero, he served only one and one-half years of his first term before resigning to be a commandant and judge in the Louisiana Territory at the request of President Jefferson. Meigs was elected governor of Ohio twice, but his first victory was set aside because he failed to show the required number of years for Ohio residency. Instead, the General Assembly appointed him again to the supreme court, where he served another 10 months until he was chosen to fill an unexpired U.S. Senate term. Meigs finally became Ohio’s fourth governor in 1810 and was re-elected two years later when he was instrumental in supplying the troops during the War of 1812.  For his service, President James Madison appointed him U.S. Postmaster General, a position he held for nine years. Meigs died at age 61 and was buried in Marietta, the settlement founded in 1788 by his father. 

William Spriggs 

Spriggs served his first term on the Ohio Supreme Court from 1803 until 1806 when he moved to New Orleans to be a territorial judge. In 1808 he returned to Ohio after the General Assembly elected him again to the supreme court. During this time the court was embroiled over a controversy over whether judges could determine constitutionality of statutes passed by the legislature. Eventually, the General Assembly enacted a law that effectively swept all judges out of office in 1810.  Sprigg then was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives and worked successfully to repeal the law. In 1812 President Madison appointed him as a territorial judge and Sprigg worked in this capacity until 1818.  He returned to Maryland and died in 1827 at age 57. 

Samuel Huntington 

Huntington’s uncle and adopted father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Connecticut. Huntington himself was a delegate to the Ohio 1802 Constitutional Convention, having come to the Ohio Territory in 1800. He was elected to the first session of the Ohio Senate and helped draft legislation that established Ohio’s court system. One of the original judges named to the Supreme Court, he succeeded Meigs as chief judge in 1804. Huntington wrote the 1807 case that stated “the courts of law possess the power of inquiring into the constitutionality of legislative acts.” Rutherford v. M’Faddon. Two judges, Calvin Pease, the presiding judge in the circuit where the Rutherford case originated and George Tod of the supreme court were impeached by the Ohio General Assembly; their convictions failed by one vote. Huntington was not impeached, because in October 1808, he campaigned successfully for election as Ohio’s third governor. Three years later, Huntington was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. He chose not to seek a second term. In 1817, Huntington died at his home at age 51 and was buried in Painesville, Ohio. 

For more information on the biographies of former justices, go to