COLUMBUS — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who was the longest-serving sitting state Supreme Court chief justice in the United States, died Friday at age 70.
Moyer was admitted to a Columbus hospital Thursday morning after experiencing gastrointestinal problems and died Friday afternoon, court spokesman Chris Davey said. Over the past few months Moyer had health problems that weren’t believed to be life-threatening.
Moyer, the second-longest-serving chief justice in Ohio history, became chief justice in 1987. He had planned to retire after finishing his current term at the end of the year.
Justice Paul Pfeifer, who met Moyer when both were students at the Ohio State University law school, said he and his colleagues were brought to tears.
“It’s just a huge tragedy for all of us and a great loss for his family and for the citizens of Ohio,” he said. “He was the quintessential image, and not just image but the reality of dignity of the office of chief justice, and of the role of the courts in our society.”
Pfeifer said Moyer’s health had deteriorated over the past weeks but he was in court on Tuesday, despite looking “very ill,” and returned Wednesday looking much better.
“I am so disappointed for him and his family that we weren’t able to do ... a very grand party at the end of his 24 years as chief justice,” Pfeifer said. “He was deprived of that honor, but knowing Tom he also would have been proud of himself to be able to preside right up to the end of his life.”
Moyer, a Republican, extended a bipartisan hand to the first Democratic governor in the state in 16 years when he delivered the oath of office to Gov. Ted Strickland in January 2007.
Strickland on Friday ordered flags at public buildings and grounds flown at half-staff Monday through the day of Moyer’s burial. He called Moyer “dignified, respectful, thoughtful and always concerned for the well-being of others.”
“In recent years, he was a leader and a partner in Ohio’s bipartisan efforts to fight foreclosure and to take a serious and comprehensive look at corrections reform,” the governor said in a statement. “He spoke passionately and convincingly for reducing the influence of money in judicial elections.”
State law says “the judge having the period of longest total service upon the court shall be the acting chief justice” if the chief justice is absent or disabled.
Pfeifer, considered the all-Republican court’s most liberal voice, now is the longest-serving justice on the court. He was first elected in 1993. He is unopposed in his November re-election bid.
Vacancies on the court are filled by appointment by the governor.
Moyer received his law degree from The Ohio State University in 1964 and served eight years as a judge of the Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals. He also worked in private practice in Columbus, served as an executive assistant to the governor, an assistant state attorney general and a probate court referee and was on the Columbus school board.
Among the influential cases Moyer oversaw on the high court was one through which justices multiple times considered whether Ohio’s school funding system was unconstitutional.
The most recent ruling in the 1991 lawsuit on behalf of Perry County schoolboy Nathan DeRolph came in 2002, when the Supreme Court upheld previous decisions that said the system unconstitutionally favored rich districts over poor by relying too much on local property taxes.
Bill Phillis, who led the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, which fought Ohio’s school funding formula before the court, praised Moyer’s conduct.
“He was always an honorable person. There was never any question about the integrity of Tom Moyer,” he said. “That’s not to say we agreed with Tom ... but you never questioned his honesty and integrity.”
Among Moyer’s main efforts was to replace the election of Supreme Court judges in Ohio with a new system requiring the governor to appoint them from candidates approved by a nominating panel. Moyer had called the chase for campaign donations “corrosive” and said polls showed most people think campaign donations influence rulings.