Reflections on a judicial career


By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer



On January 2, 1993, I was sworn in as the newest member of the Ohio Supreme Court. In a few days, my fourth-and-final six-year term will come to an end. A quarter century has passed quickly.

When you’ve been around as long as I have, the numbers sort of start to pile up. I’m currently the longest-serving justice on the court, and our court staff indicates only five other justices in the court’s 214-year history have served longer. During my time on the court, by my rough estimate, I have cast more than 70,000 votes and authored more than 1,000 majority opinions, concurrences and dissents.

It was never my life-long goal to become a Supreme Court justice. In 1992, as I was wrapping up my fourth term in the Ohio Senate and trying to decide what was next in my life, I was approached by the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Thomas J. Moyer, and his fellow justices Andy Douglas and Craig Wright, urging me to run for the open seat on the court.

I had my doubts. After so many years in the legislature, where the battles could be furious and invigorating, I feared the cloistered environment at the court would be stifling and dull. But Moyer, who I had known since our days in law school at Ohio State, promised me that I would be stimulated by what he called a “daily intellectual feast.”

He wasn’t wrong. There was a never-ending stream of cases that came before the court on a vast array of topics. There was no such thing as a routine case. Even the subjects that we saw all the time—such as tax appeals or workers’ compensation cases—consistently provided a unique set of circumstances to be resolved.

While I have always maintained that every case was important to the litigants involved, some were undeniably of greater magnitude than others, such as the landmark school funding case, DeRolph v. State. Our first opinion in that case, in which we held that the state’s method of funding public schools was unconstitutional, was published in 1997. After multiple appeals by the state, the fourth and final opinion in DeRolph was published 12 years later, when we finally relinquished jurisdiction.

We also saw a steady stream of death penalty cases, and I have a rather unique history with that law. In 1981, while I was a state senator, I helped craft Ohio’s death penalty statute. By the time I arrived here, I was growing troubled with the law’s unequal application. I saw it as a “death lottery,” dependent on geography and the attitude of a particular prosecutor toward death sentences. While I never let my personal feelings interfere with administering the law as it was written, I have no qualms now saying that it’s time we got rid of the death penalty in Ohio.

Supreme Court justices speak primarily through their written opinions—they are the record, the legacy we leave behind. When I arrived here, I had two goals in mind for my writing—be brief and be interesting. While brevity was often dictated by the complexity of a case, and “interesting” could be dependent on subject matter, lawyers and judges generally agreed that I achieved what I set out to do.

Just this week, when Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was interviewed about my departure, she paid me a wonderful compliment. The Columbus Dispatch article noted that “Pfeifer…became known as one of the court’s best writers, particularly in his sharply worded dissents.” Chief Justice O’Conner concurred, saying, “Rather than beat around the bush, which isn’t Paul’s style, he went right after the majority’s argument and stated his case plainly, clearly, and often in a clever way. Even when we disagreed, his dissents shined a light on the court’s work.”

Beyond speaking through my opinions, I also wrote a weekly newspaper column. My goal with the column was to explain our work here, examine the cases we reviewed and provide insight into our decision-making process.

I have only one regret: the breaking up of my team here at the court. I have been richly blessed with a wonderful staff. Sandy Messer has been my assistant going all the way back to my Ohio Senate days. She has kept me organized, (mostly) on time and in line. Kevin Diehl has helped me research and maintain my weekly column for more than two decades. And my two law clerks—Jim Sheridan and Bob Burpee—have been my stalwarts. Jim has been with me since my first day on the court, and Bob nearly so. Together, we have collaborated on every one of those 1,000-plus opinions. Our close working relationship has given me a consistent voice in my writing. Whatever accolades are directed at me should also be directed toward them.

Combined, these four—Sandy, Jim, Bob and Kevin—have been with me for over 100 years. They are bright, gentle, caring people who always understood that we were here to serve the citizens of this great state. More than anything, I find it most difficult saying goodbye to them.

Although I’m leaving the court, I’m not going terribly far. I have been named executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference. The Conference is the conduit for Ohio’s 722 judges to provide input to the General Assembly and the Supreme Court on legislative issues and courtroom rules. I’m excited for the new opportunity.

This job, this career, has been a rewarding and wonderful experience. As I leave the court, I leave with an internal satisfaction that’s hard to explain. It’s all there in those written opinions. Like an athlete at the end of a career, I look back and realize that I helped deliver some victories for “team Ohio,” and I suffered some disappointing defeats. But most of all I am content in the belief that I contributed my best judgment and intellectual effort on every matter—large or small—from the first day to the final decision.

Above all, I am grateful to you, the people of Ohio. I am honored that you have placed your trust in me, and that you have given me the privilege of serving on your highest court.

Thank you and Happy New Year.

By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.