Attorneys' 15 Minutes of Fame
By Csaba Sukosd | February 11, 2020
For the Ohio Supreme Court justices, oral arguments are part of a routine day at the office. For the attorneys there to present cases, it's anything but an ordinary experience.
About 40 times each year, the pinnacle of the state's appellate process is on display either at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center, or at a high school venue as part of the Off-Site Court Program.
"It can be intimidating, not just because you're in front of a panel of seven of the most accomplished and seasoned judges, but the courtroom itself is rather ornate," said Montgomery County assistant prosecutor Andrew French.
The main Courtroom's Renaissance, Rococo, and Art Deco décor, and the cases heard in the artistic surroundings, are both distinct. Each year approximately 2,000 cases are filed with the Supreme Court. Of those, around 600 cases must be reviewed, because the Court is required to handle appeals involving the death penalty and public utilities, as well as cases involving attorney and judicial discipline. Of the remaining 1,400 cases, the Court scrutinizes each case on its merits and the "public or great general interest" of the issues. The votes of four justices are required for a case to be accepted. Only about 6% of its discretionary docket of cases - around 80 per year - end up being heard.
"You understand just by the way the room feels that very serious things are decided," said Julie Harris, an attorney who recently argued for the first time before the Supreme Court.
In most instances, it's a yearslong process for those successful attorneys, from the start of an appeal to when they have their day in the high court. When that time comes, there's an understandable anxiety.
"I'm nervous, and uncomfortable, in the hours leading up to the argument, but when I start arguing, it becomes comfortable pretty quickly," said Patrick Clark, who works for the Ohio Public Defender's Office.
After spending countless hours researching and crafting their interpretation of a law or policy, an attorney is tasked with condensing all that information into a 15-minute allotment for most cases. But at any point during a debate, a lawyer's course can be detoured because the justices are free to ask questions.
"I like questions because it gives me a taste of what the justices feel are important," said French.
Unlike a trial court, there's no introduction of evidence or facts about the case. Instead, the justices analyze statutes that an appellant claims prevented a fair or just ruling, or they consider constitutional issues.
"For the most part, it's an intellectual discussion about the law with seven people who like to have intellectual discussions about the law," said attorney John Gonzales.
Since most cases don't have unanimous decisions in the state's high court, there's an added challenge of answering - and persuading - jurists who may interpret the text differently.
"I need to think about the issue from all angles, and be ready to chart a course through that potential disagreement," said Clark.
When a lawyer's "15 minutes of fame" is up, the guessing game begins.
"Could I have answered a question better? Could I have made an argument clearer?" Gonzales said.
Unlike the trial courts, Supreme Court decisions aren't announced for months. As the advocates anxiously wait, win or lose, they all have achieved something few get to experience.
"It's very exciting, and fun, for a lawyer to get the opportunity to argue to the highest court in Ohio. It's special," said Harris.