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2017 In Review: Big Decisions From The Ohio Supreme Court, With More To Come

Dan Konik
Statehouse News Bureau

As 2017 ends, some big decisions are anticipated out of the Ohio Supreme Court. Those include major 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,” Musto said.

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.

The court also heard 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. 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,” Strait said.

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. 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 percent 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,” Clark said.

And when asked if it will go to the Ohio Supreme Court, Clark says, “Absolutely.”

The justices voted to allow the state to start deducting $2.5 million from it monthly $8.1 million payments to ECOT. The court hasn’t indicated when it will hear ECOT’s lawsuit against the state.

The year also brought a new issue for the court to debate within itself. The court’s 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.

“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,” O’Neill said.

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