CLEVELAND — The average time the Ohio Supreme Court takes to issue rulings after it hears oral arguments in a case increased by 40 percent over a a two-year period, a newspaper analysis published Sunday found.
The Plain Dealer analysis found that cases averaged five months between arguments and the court’s decisions in 2004, but that increased to seven months last year. The court doesn’t hear arguments in the majority of cases that come before it.
In one case, two men who had spent 16 years in prison for crimes in which they eventually were cleared had to wait nearly one year after arguments before the court unanimously ordered new trials for both of them.
Randy Resh was acquitted and the prosecutor dropped charges against Robert Gondor in the 1990 rape and murder of a Portage County woman. Resh’s lawyer thinks the wait was too long.
“If you saw the oral argument, all seven justices ... were clearly disturbed by the convictions, yet it took a unanimous court, with no dissents and no separate concurrences, 11 months to come back with a decision,” said Columbus attorney Jim Owen, who represented Resh.
Chief Justice Thomas Moyer agrees, but adds there is little he can do about it.
“Any justice who has a pattern of taking a longer period of time than others knows the court’s concern, they know the chief justice’s concern, they know the concern of their colleagues,” Moyer said. “But one thing we have to remember is each of the justices is an independently statewide elected official.”
The justices usually discuss and vote on a case the day it is argued, though in rare cases, some change their positions. Once the vote is taken, a justice in the majority is randomly selected to write the court’s opinion.
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger joined the bench in 2005, replacing retired Justice Francis Sweeney. Her decisions took longer last year than in her first year on the bench.
Justice Paul Pfeifer was the slowest, taking an average of 291 days to produce each of his 21 opinions in 2006 — nearly two months longer than the next-slowest justice, Lanzinger, the newspaper said. Former Justice Alice Robie Resnick last year was the fastest, with an average of 179 days for her 17 cases, The Plain Dealer said. Resnick retired and was replaced this year by Justice Robert Cupp.
The justices took more than 300 days to return 16 of their 130 majority opinions last year from cases argued before them.
One of those opinions, Gondor’s and Resh’s, left the court uneasy with its own performance while exposing a personality rift among the justices. The justice writing that decision: Pfeifer, who released the decision 335 days after the case was argued.
“I’m disturbed that that type of case took that long,” said Justice Maureen O’Connor.
Pfeifer, the justice who most often challenges his colleagues in dissents and in a weekly newspaper column, said he doesn’t mind being the court’s scapegoat on this issue. He’s slow because he intends to be.
“I just do not emphasize speed; I never have,” he said. “It’s not in my nature. I think about things slowly and carefully.”
Moyer said the justices are aware of the issue.
It’s “peer pressure to keep the cases moving,” Moyer explains, “but it’s only that, peer pressure.”