LISBON - Columbiana County students caught a glimpse into the inner workings of the Supreme Court of Ohio and the justices behind the robes Wednesday morning - about 206 years after the first jurists dispensed justice in a barn on state Route 7.
"We did not come here by horseback, I assure you," Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer quipped before opening the first case of oral arguments heard in the courtroom of Judge David Tobin of Common Pleas Court.
Six of the seven justices made the trip to Lisbon for the Off-Site Court Program which takes the high court out of Columbus for a session in one of the state's 88 counties. The court schedules two visits per year as a means to educate area high school students about the justice system and mingle with the parties affected by the justices' decisions.
Chief Justice Thomas Moyer looks back at a stone that marks the site of one of the first sessions of the Ohio Supreme Court on June 14, 1803. The stone is located at a former rest area on state Route 7 just south of state Route 46. (Photo special to the Salem News/Aaron Rudolph)
"I think you can see that the justices seem very intelligent, but also very personable. They're just normal people, but with an extraordinary job to do," Salem High School senior Dan Kish said about the learning experience.
Fellow classmate Libbi Williams, who's planning to major in political science and seek a law degree, said she was surprised by the relaxed atmosphere and found the process intriguing. Their teacher, George Spack, said it's one thing for a teacher to teach in a classroom, but for students to see something firsthand, that's a valuable lesson.
For Beaver Local High School senior Leah Wilson and juniors Bo Emmerling and Emily Householder, they said their experience in the mock trial competition earlier this year helped them better understand what they witnessed in the oral arguments.
"We use case law all the time in mock trial. To see it firsthand was amazing," Householder said.
Emmerling, whose mother is East Liverpool Municipal Court Judge Melissa Byers-Emmerling, said he found it interesting how the attorneys used past cases in an effort to persuade the justices.
Since Moyer started the program in 1987, this was the 57th time cases were heard outside of the state capital, with four cases argued in 30-minute increments. Attorneys for each side had 15 minutes to state their case and answer questions posed by the justices, just as they would in Columbus.
Students witnessed arguments in the case assigned to them which they had reviewed with a local attorney and their teachers prior to the visit, using summaries of the specific case and educational material about the judicial system.
"This is a peaceful forum where we in America decide difficult issues," Moyer explained during a student press conference prior to the oral arguments.
Students from Beaver Local, Salem and Lisbon asked the justices a variety of questions during the press conference, such as how they determine the significance of a case they're going to take, how much they're allowed to talk to each other about the issues and whether it's difficult to remain objective on some cases.
Other school districts which attended the program included Columbiana, Crestview, East Palestine, Leetonia, East Liverpool Christian, Heartland Christian, Minerva, West Branch, Wellsville, East Liverpool, Southern Local, United and the Career Center.
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, who was born in Thailand, was asked how her upbringing in different countries has affected her service on the bench. After seeing different forms of government, she came to America and was struck at how positive the country was, noting she has an appreciation for how the U.S. Constitution protects people.
"We have so many freedoms, but we take them so for granted," she said.
The Supreme Court doesn't have to take every case, except when a case involves the death penalty, so they have discretion in what cases to hear.
Justice Robert Cupp explained that factors affecting their decision include:whether a case covers a broad issue that could come into play in other cases; whether two appellate courts have seen an issue a different way, requiring action to resolve the conflict and bring uniformity across the state; whether they get a clear statement of the law; and if an issue keeps reoccurring.
Four votes are required for a majority opinion and after a session of oral arguments, the justices meet for a preliminary vote, which is what they did at the Courthouse. A leather bottle containing seven balls, one for each justice, is shaken and a ball removed to determine who writes the opinion. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger said once the opinion is written, it's circulated to the other justices. Sometimes votes change and sometimes a justice may choose to write a dissenting opinion.
After each oral argument, the attorneys from the cases joined the students in another courtroom to debrief them about what they saw and answer their questions.
The first case of the day questioned whether a previous high court ruling voided state law allowing enhanced sentences for repeat violent offenders.
At issue was whether a defendant's rights were violated when he was sentenced to an additional two years for a repeat violent offender specification attached to a felonious assault charge. He received the maximum eight years for the assault, plus two more for the repeat violent offender status.
His public defender, Cullen Sweeney, argued the decision to enhance a sentence belongs to a jury, while Cuyahoga County assistant Prosecutor Allan Regas argued it was a case about punishing the offender, a duty which belongs to the court.
Other cases dealt with a lawsuit over a the death of a suspected shoplifter outside a grocery store, a defamation case against an out-of-state Internet shopper by an Ohio company, and a claim over a vehicle trade-in value filed against a car dealership.
The decisions in the cases could take anywhere from 30 days to six months, according to one attorney, with the opinions made public on the court's Web site at www.supremecourt.ohio.gov. Anyone who couldn't attend the sessions could also see the open arguments on the Web site.
Tobin, who invited the justices to the county, said the day went well. Extra security was on hand, with Lisbon Police and the Ohio State Highway Patrol sending officers and the Sheriff's Office assigning its day staff to the Courthouse.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org