Judging Ohio

After 18 years on the Ohio Supreme Court, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer has a lot to say about business in Ohio.

Moyer has led several initiatives in his time on the court, including the adoption of strict contribution limits for judicial campaigns and changing the rules that govern attorney and judicial conduct and more strictly enforcing them.

During his State of the Judiciary address in September, Moyer announced that Ohio will join a consortium with California and Maryland to establish regional educational centers to prepare judges to adjudicate high-profile cases involving the life sciences, genetics, biomedicine, biotechnology and the neurosciences.

“It’s impossible to train every judge in the country on science, so the regional centers will train a core group of judges who can then either assist a sitting judge who has the case in which the controlling issue may be an issue of biomedicine, or could have the case assigned to that research judge to try,” he says.

Moyer, who at press time was campaigning for a fourth six-year term on the court, received his law degree from The Ohio State University and spent several years in private practice before serving as Gov. James A. Rhodes’ executive assistant.

He served as judge of the Tenth District Court of Appeals from 1979 to 1986 and was elected to his first term as chief justice on Nov. 4, 1986.

Smart Business spoke with Moyer about educating judges, frivolous lawsuits and tort reform.

How will the consortium with California and Maryland to establish regional education centers help Ohio’s biomedicine and biotechnology firms?

The project is not directed at helping them directly, although I would guess that we will, as the program develops and we search for faculty, draw upon some of the persons who are involved in biomedicine and biotechnology. … Most judges, of course, are not trained in bioscience or biomedicine, and the judges are the gatekeepers in determining what evidence juries or the fact-finders are going to hear.

Oftentimes, the judges simply don’t know what is credible science and what is not credible science. The program will provide judges with knowledge about science, and therefore, hopefully produce a better result in the courts, based upon credible science rather than science that is not credible.

Tort reform is the buzzword among business owners. How do you define ‘tort reform’?

I have to be very careful because the General Assembly is considering a fairly comprehensive bill that is designated as tort reform by some, and it’s likely that if that legislation is adopted, there could be challenges to it, or parts of it. Those challenges would likely find their way to the Supreme Court.

The term, tort reform, is applied to any number of measures that some people see as making it more difficult either to file a claim against someone or to recover against an entity by placing caps on punitive damages. There are a number of other provisions of the tort reform legislation, as I understand, directed at ultimately trying to make a better climate in Ohio for business, and that’s what I understand tort reform to be directed at.

To sit on the medical side, of course, there was a bill passed last year directed at medical malpractice suits, which, among other things, does put caps on punitive damages and the pain and suffering element. That’s in response to the very high premiums that many doctors across Ohio are having to pay for their malpractice insurance — premiums that seem to increase substantially every year.

I would think that that legislation will also find its way to the Supreme Court.

Do you think frivolous lawsuits are clogging the Ohio courts?

We have a very open and accessible court system in our country. People can file any suit they want, and it’s up to the judges to dismiss those suits and cases that have no merit. I can’t quantify how many frivolous lawsuits there are but one of the sort-of hallmarks of the American legal system is our providing consistency and predictability in the law.

I feel very strongly that the law, as announced by the Supreme Court, usually should change incrementally and very slowly, should develop rather than change radically, making very abrupt changes, because that creates an uncertainty that makes it difficult for trial judges to know what is a frivolous lawsuit. The Supreme Court has sanctioned persons who have filed appeals in the Supreme Court that are determined to be frivolous. We’ve ordered the losing party to pay the costs of the winning party.

A frivolous lawsuit would be either of two forms: One is a lawsuit that simply has no merit, either legally or factually. The other can be a lawsuit, such as a lawsuit that is filed against several doctors, for example, and perhaps a hospital, where there may be someone at fault but there are four or five persons who are added as defendants who had nothing to do with the alleged malpractice. And that’s an area in which we can find … the frivolous adding of parties to lawsuits that might otherwise have some validity.

But generally, it’s a lawsuit that’s just based on whether there are no facts to support the allegation, or the law is very clear that the person has no chance of winning. HOW TO REACH: Ohio Supreme Court, (614) 387-9250, www.sconet.state.oh.us