2017 Year In Review - Big Year For Ohio Supreme Court, But Big Rulings Remain

Dec 31, 2017

2017 ends with some big decisions coming out of the Ohio Supreme Court. But there are key rulings ahead on abortion clinics in Toledo and Cleveland. And there are still big questions about the future of the state’s largest online charter school, and about the future of one of the Court’s own members.

The year began with arguments over a bipartisan law from 2014 that set rules on traffic cameras. Cities said state lawmakers basically shut down camera programs by requiring cities to post a police officer with each camera, to post warning signs and to limit when tickets can be issued.

Dayton assistant city attorney John Musto told the court the law violates the home rule provision of the Ohio Constitution, and some elements of it – like the three-year traffic study it also required – are unfair and unnecessary. “It’s just an additional hurdle that was put on this program to eliminate photo enforcement, which is what has actually happened thus far – which has made the streets of Dayton less safe.”

In July, the court struck down three provisions of the law, and in December the court sent traffic camera lawsuits filed by Springfield and Toledo back to lower courts. Many camera programs were shut down by the law or by voters – but some programs continue, and some cities say they’ll bring theirs back.

There were some important free speech cases – for instance, the court’s October ruling that requiring people living with HIV to disclose their status to potential sexual partners is constitutional. And a sharply divided court also ruled that portions of the Pike County Coroner’s autopsy reports on the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families in 2016 are not public records, because they’re part of an open investigation.

And there were big decisions involving kids. In October, the justices split in saying juvenile courts can dismiss sex charges against a child under 13 if the kids involved in sexual conduct were close in age.  Attorney David Strait argued to the court in May that the charge went against Ohio law protecting kids under 13, who are unable to consent and also can’t be charged with rape and other crimes: “If both the offender and the alleged victim are within that protected class, then this distinction between the two breaks down."

The court ruled in July that a lack of financial support isn’t the only thing required for a court to declare that a parent has willfully abandoned a child and that an adoption can proceed – the parent’s consent is also still needed. And in May the court unanimously said a student’s constitutional rights weren’t violated by a search of an unattended book bag that led to the discovery of a gun.

There’s still no ruling yet on a lawsuit that could affect thousands of kids at the state’s largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. In June the state Board of Education ordered ECOT to pay back $60 million in state funding it got for actually having 60% fewer students than it claimed it did.  But ECOT spokesman Neil Clark said then the battle with the Ohio Department of Education wasn’t over. “We will resist any actions that they take and we’ll continue to appeal to the General Assembly or others to correct what’s been going wrong in this process.” And when asked if it will go to the Ohio Supreme Court, Clark said, “Absolutely.”

In July, the justices voted to allow the state to start deducting $2.5 million from its $8.1 million monthly payments to ECOT. The court has set arguments in the case for February 13.

The year also brought a new issue for the court to debate within itself. Its only Democrat, Justice Bill O’Neill, said at the start of the year he was thinking of running for governor, but that he wouldn’t if Richard Cordray joined the race. Cordray did, but O’Neill now says he’ll run because no candidate is supporting legalizing marijuana.

O’Neill has said he’ll leave the bench January 26, but Senate President Larry Obhof has suggested lawmakers might try to remove O’Neill when they return in January. O'Neill responded to that by saying: “If they want to have a public hearing to determine whether or not I should stop ruling on important cases a week earlier, I’d said let them convene what they want to convene whatever they want to convene and I’ll gladly respond.”

Republican Gov. John Kasich has been taking in applications from those who want to be picked by him to fill out the rest of O’Neill’s term. O’Neill couldn’t run for re-election in 2018 because of his age.