A remarkable educational opportunity presented itself to Fayette County students on Wednesday as the Supreme Court of Ohio heard three cases at Miami Trace High School.
Fayette County rolled out the red carpet for the seven Supreme Court justices who visited as part of the court’s ongoing civic education outreach to help students and the public learn more about the judicial branch. It was the first session held in 2022 as part of the off-site court program, which began in 1987.
“The Supreme Court goes off-site twice a year, but we’re only going to do it once this year,” said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. “Serving the educational needs of students is the main reason we hold these off-site courts. It’s worked out extremely well. We move from high school to high school because we find that these are phenomenally valuable experiences — these in-person experiences for the students, for the teachers, the administration and the community at-large. We hope that our visit here in Fayette County had the same effect as we’ve had in other counties.”
To date, the Ohio Supreme Court has traveled to 72 of Ohio’s 88 counties as part of the program.
“All it takes is an invitation from the local bar association and the local judiciary and we’re there,” said Chief Justice O’Connor. “I anticipate in the next couple years, we will have went to all 88 counties. This visit to Fayette County is the 80th opportunity for off-site court. We’ve obviously done some counties more than once.”
Fayette County Common Pleas Judge Steven Beathard extended the invitation to the Supreme Court. Common Pleas Court Administrator Carmen Baird and Clerk of Courts Sandy Wilson were integral in coordinating the event.
“It’s a great day for the county and for the students of the county as they got to participate in a live civics class unlike any other,” said Judge Beathard. “It helps them get a better understanding of what I call the least understood and sometimes, most maligned branch of our state government.”
Not only Miami Trace students, but students from the Washington Court House City School District and Fayette Christian School attended this special court session held in the MTHS auditorium on Wednesday morning. Students who observed the first oral argument met with the justices for a question-and-answer session before that hearing.
“The students asked great questions,” said Chief Justice O’Connor following the hearings. “This is the first time that we’ve had such a coordinated group of students that early in the morning asking seven Supreme Court justices questions. I compliment the students who prepared for that because they did a wonderful job.”
The seven justices are: O’Connor, Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, Melody J. Stewart and Jennifer Brunner. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Ohio. Most of its cases are appeals from the 12 district courts of appeals.
After each case, students discussed it with the attorneys who argued in front of the court. To help the students prepare for this, the Ohio Supreme Court’s civic education staff provided students and teachers with educational materials, including case summaries, to study beforehand.
One of the three cases heard Wednesday involved Emile Weaver — a former Muskingum University student convicted of murdering her baby.
In 2014, Weaver — a sophomore at Muskingum at the time — denied and concealed her pregnancy. She gave birth to a child and placed the infant in a trash bag. The child died, Weaver was convicted of murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Weaver claimed her trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to explain how her mental condition merited a lighter sentence. At a post-conviction relief hearing, the trial judge dismissed the claims from Weaver’s expert on maternal mental health. In State v. Weaver, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether an appeals court needs to scrutinize a trial judge’s evaluation of the credibility of a witness and if Weaver received a fair hearing before an unbiased judge.
The justices will consider the case and release their decision at a later date.
“I hope the students and teachers felt the cases we selected and prepared for you today were interesting, complex and made you think,” said Chief Justice O’Connor. “Because they do make us think.”
Miami Trace Superintendent Kim Pittser, who was also instrumental in preparing for the Ohio Supreme Court’s visit, said Wednesday was a phenomenal day for Fayette County.
“Miami Trace is grateful to have hosted the Supreme Court of Ohio off-site program,” she said. “We greatly appreciate the many groups and individuals who assisted in the organization and operation of the proceedings and we hope all of the students will forever remember this remarkable opportunity.”
Following the off-site court program, a luncheon sponsored by the Fayette County Common Pleas Court and the Fayette County Bar Association was held at the Rusty Keg Crown Room in Washington C.H.
After food was served, three accomplished students — Emily Barker of Fayette Christian, Westin Pettit of Miami Trace, and Tyler Tackage of Washington C.H. — spoke to the justices, judicial hosts and community leaders.
A special thanks was given to local law enforcement, including the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, Washington Police Department and Ohio State Highway Patrol, that was charged with keeping everyone safe during the events of the day.
Reach Record-Herald Editor Ryan Carter at 740-313-0352.