Supreme Court justice helps VW students
DAVE MOSIER/independent editor
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French has spent decades reading and writing appellate briefs and arguing appeals cases. That knowledge was just what students in Bob Priest’s AP Government class were looking for to help them prepare for a statewide law competition.
Justice French was in Van Wert on Wednesday as part of a personal commitment to public service, first spending some time with Van Wert Municipal Judge Jill Leatherman and then a half-hour with Priest’s AP Government students. The students – at least those traveling to Columbus May 20 to participate in a statewide moot court competition – were taking plenty of notes.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the new justice, who took office in January 2013, has the perfect background to help the class.
For those unfamiliar with such things, a moot court competition is similar to a mock trial competition, but deals with appeals cases, rather than criminal or civil trials. That means students must first write a legal brief stating their position on an assigned case dealing with an appellate issue and then participate in oral arguments in front of a panel of judges.
Justice French explained to the students that her entire legal career has been spent on appeals cases. As an environmental attorney and then as an assistant Ohio attorney general, she wrote briefs and argued cases in front of a number of appellate courts – including two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court while working for former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery.
She then served eight years as a judge on the Tenth Ohio District Court of Appeals in Columbus before Governor John Kasich appointed her to the state’s highest appeals court in December 2012.
Justice French, who tutored students in the Columbus City Schools when she was an attorney, said she feels civic education is a very important part of her job.
“That means I need to be a resource to students, I need to be a resource to educators to help them understand what we do, why we do it and why it is important,” Justice French said, adding that, with her appellate court background, she can give advice to the VWHS students that will really help them in their presentations.
“If I were in their shoes, I would want a justice to be giving practical advice,” Justice French said. “Not just talking about lofty legal issues, but really talking about things they will be facing in a few weeks: being at the court and being nervous, and giving an oral argument.”
“I will be watching their progress and their success,” she noted, although she said she had meetings in the Cleveland area when the moot court sessions are held next month at the Ohio Supreme Court building.
Priest said he was very appreciative of the justice’s willingness to help his students, and also was glad that Justice French’s first scheduled appearance last fall had to be canceled when fog forced area schools to close.
The cancellation was a blessing in disguise, since students were much more prepared Wednesday to ask questions that would help them with the moot court competition. And ask they did, taking up most of Justice French’s half-hour with questions about the best ways to write briefs and present oral arguments.
When the AP Government class was over, the justice spoke about her fairly brief time on the state’s highest court, and also talked why her travel across the state is so important to her.
Noting that one of the duties of the seven Ohio Supreme Court justices is to decide what appellate cases are important enough to be heard by them, Justice French said talking to people in all 88 counties gives her a better idea of what the important issues are facing her fellow Ohioans.
“All of that travel has made me a better justice and made me better able to make those judgments about what are the important questions,” she explained.
So what issues are important to Ohio residents now?
Agriculture and healthcare reform are issues that she expects to see in front of her court, but added that energy issues would likely take up a large portion of the docket in the near future.
“Right now, energy is an issue, whether it’s oil and gas in the eastern part of the state or wind energy in this part of the state,” Justice French said. “Whatever a stampede sounds like in the distance, that’s what I hear coming … those are the issues that are going to dominate for the next few years.”