The Ohio Modern Courts Amendment: 45 Years of Progress

Article excerpt

One of Ohio's greatest sons, Ulysses S. Grant, was not known for his dapper appearance. (1) Upon entering an inn one stormy night, he is said to have encountered a group of lawyers. (2) They were there for court--as was the custom in that day--and they were huddled around the fire. (3) One of the attorneys cracked that Grant looked like he had come through hell to get there and asked the future President what it was like in the underworld, to which Grant replied, "[just like here:] lawyers nearest the fire." (4)

Unfortunately, this is a common sentiment. The eminent legal scholar Roscoe Pound famously said in a 1906 speech to the American Bar Association that "[d]issatisfaction with the administration of justice is as old as law." (5) "[A]s long as there have been laws and lawyers," Pound said, "conscientious and well-meaning men have believed that laws were mere arbitrary technicalities, and that the attempt to regulate the relations of mankind in accordance with them resulted largely in injustice." (6) Pound went on in his seminal--and at the time controversial--speech to detail the reasons for this persistent and insidious misperception of the law and to offer his recommendations for countering it. Pound's speech came at the height of the Progressive Movement and served as the catalyst for salutary reforms in the U.S. legal establishment. (7)

Indeed, while Pound may have been right that there have always been "conscientious and well-meaning men" who have lamented what's wrong with the law, there also have always been equally conscientious and well-meaning men and women who have worked tirelessly to improve the administration of justice. In Ohio, the history of this struggle is one of slow, incremental progress punctuated by specific moments of major advancement.

When I consider the question what makes the Ohio Supreme Court great, there is one specific improvement of our legal system that stands out. It is a major reform that was led by the bench and bar--that celebrates its forty-fifth anniversary this May--and that put into place a new framework for the administration of justice, which resulted in a process of reform and improvement that continues to this day. It is the Modern Courts Amendment.

On May 7, 1968, the people of Ohio passed the Modern Courts Amendment by an overwhelming margin, approximately sixty-two percent to thirty-eight percent, with the ballot initiative passing in seventy-nine of Ohio's eighty-eight politically diverse counties. (8) It was the first major revision of Article IV of the Ohio Constitution governing the judicial branch since the Ohio Constitution of 1851. (9)

In many ways, the Ohio Modern Courts Amendment was the direct progeny of Pound's 1906 address. While he had initially been chastised for his frank criticism of the U.S. judicial system, ultimately, there was a groundswell of support for judicial reforms around the country. It took several decades for this to translate into action, and in the 1950s and 1960s, a plurality of states, including Ohio, began initiating many of the reforms Pound had promoted. (10) These included proposals for so-called merit selection of judges, court consolidation, centralized management of state judicial systems, and adequate court funding. (11) In Ohio, the Ohio State Bar Association, the Legislative Service Commission, the Ohio Judicial Conference, and leaders in the General Assembly worked for the better part of a decade studying the Ohio court system, examining reforms in other states, and crafting a concrete proposal for reform that ultimately became the Modern Courts Amendment. (12)

The amendment made a number of relatively minor changes, like establishing that the Chief Justice's six colleagues on the bench would be designated "justices" as opposed to the previous designation of "judges." (13) It also made changes that, at the time, were of keen interest to the judges and other parties but that did not have broad effects on the administration of the court system. …