By Frank Lewis
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French arrived in Portsmouth Tuesday only to find out the class she was going to lecture at Shawnee State University had been cancelled. French said she enjoys speaking with high school and college students because those conversations often dispel the mystery that sometimes surround the high court.
“There is nothing I like more than questions and answers,” French told the Daily Times.
One of the mysteries that exists when someone hears questioning by Supreme Court justices is why their questions seem to be leaning toward one decision, when they come up with a totally different decision after hearing all of the arguments.
“People who are watching might think that we meet before the arguments,” French said. “We don’t. I have no idea, going into the arguments, what the other justices think about that case. I’ve prepared independently. I’ve had my own law clerks help me prepare. So I have, at least, my tentative position when I walk in. And I have my questions ready to go.”
She said, just as a member of the audience might be figuring out where a particular justice is coming from, she is too.
“I’m thinking, wait a minute, if they’re asking that question, does that mean they think we ought to affirm this case, or reverse this case, or is their position different from mine?” French said.
French said the way the justices ask questions sometimes reflect their feelings and sometimes they are more of the devil’s advocate variety.
“I tend to say, ‘counsel, what I’m troubled by is this…’ so I’m kind of showing my hand,” French said. “Not everybody is like that.”
She said there are times when a justice might want to push an attorney even if she is in agreement with them, to get the best possible argument out.
“I love having good arguments, and having good lawyers in front of us,” French said. “I tell lawyers all the time, if we’re pushing you, then we know that you can do it. There is just nothing more fun for an appellate court than to have that good engagement of question and answer between judge and lawyer.”
She said if she feels the lawyer is struggling, she will help them along so they don’t feel intimidated by the exchange.
“I try to throw out the lifeline because that’s what I would have wanted as an advocate,” French said. “They can be a little nervous when they are standing up there and maybe they have a good answer to that question, but they can’t remember it at that moment because they’re nervous. And if I see that panic-stricken look on their face, there’s a lifeline I can throw, because I want every lawyer that comes in front of us to have a good argument.”
French was asked if jurors are underrated by TV analysts who want to determine how a jury will rule because of things like gender, age, ethnicity.
“I think so,” French said. “Jurors do a terrific job. People who are serving on jury duty do see it as a service. Can there be a rogue juror out there? Of course, but I think people for the most part are going to listen to the judge; listen to the instructions and follow the law.”
French said she is looking forward to rescheduling her visit to SSU.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.