The Law School Magazine  ·  Spring 2010 : Features

The Legacy of Thomas J. Moyer

By - Spring 2010
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Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer ’64 passed away suddenly on April 2. Moyer, 70, had served on the Ohio Supreme Court since 1987 and was a frequent visitor to the College, regularly interacting with students, faculty, and alumni. In 1993, Moritz honored him with an honorary doctorate of law.

Chief Justice Moyer earned his bachelor’s degree from Ohio State in 1961 and his law degree in 1964. He was in the midst of his fourth term on the Ohio Supreme Court, and, because of a mandatory retirement age for justices, was expected to retire at the year’s end. During his tenure, Moyer led a multitude of changes that affected the entire Ohio judicial system, including the adoption of alternative dispute resolution in Ohio courts; the creation of drug courts for non-violent offenders; the education of judges through Advanced Science and Technology Adjudication Resource Center and increased continuing legal education requirements; the creation of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission; and the development of family courts that take a comprehensive approach to resolving the criminal and civil issues confronting families. He was also integral in creating the Law and Leadership Institute, a statewide pipeline program that places disadvantaged eighth grade students in law schools for the summer.

“Chief Justice Tom Moyer served Ohio with unmatched distinction, compassion, and effectiveness,” said E. Gordon Gee, president of The Ohio State University. “He devoted his career to the public good, improving our state’s justice system in countless and enduring ways, and sharing his deep knowledge of the rule of law to help emerging democracies around the world. Admired by allies and adversaries alike, Tom Moyer will be counted as one of our truly great elected leaders. Ohio State and the state of Ohio have lost one of their finest.”

‘How Lucky Ohio Was’

By Nancy H. Rogers

Chief Justice Tom Moyer liked his work. You could see that especially when he thought that one of his initiatives was bearing fruit. His face would light up when he heard, for example, that more courts had instituted mediation programs or that his new program to improve college and law school graduation rates for students in under-served schools had expanded to additional Ohio cities.

He worked hard on these initiatives, which were broad in scope – expanding the rule of law to other nations, preparing the next generation of lawyers, finding out whether there was support for changing the method of selecting Supreme Court justices, and more. He used not only staff but also solicited volunteers to give him counsel on how to shape the initiatives.

I treasured my time working as a volunteer for the chief; others reacted the same way.  Analyzing why we responded so positively, I think it began with our confidence in his character and his genuine dedication to doing the right thing. There was more. His modesty and humor were disarming. He listened thoughtfully and decided carefully. And the time would be well spent because the chief knew how to get things done, so many of his initiatives succeeded.

The Ohio bar held the chief in high esteem as did other state chief justices nationally, and, in fact, most people who spent time with him. A few years ago, he co-chaired a committee to draft a uniform mediation privilege for states to enact, another of his successful initiatives. Law faculty and lawyers from throughout the country attended the meetings, and you could see their admiration of him grow as the meetings progressed.

After one full-day meeting, a law faculty member from another state asked me, “How can Ohio be so lucky?” Then smiling, he said something like, “How can my state recruit Tom Moyer away? This should be like law faculty members – my state should be able to offer him a better title and twice the salary to be our chief justice. Or like baseball – can we trade Ohio four of our justices for Tom Moyer?”

How lucky Ohio was. For 24 years, we had a chief justice with deep dedication and integrity who was an able leader, an innovator who built the quality of Ohio’s justice system, and a man who Ohioans liked and admired.

Chief justice and Mary Moyer must have made many sacrifices to serve the public, but they acted like it was a privilege. Two weeks before Chief Justice Moyer died, he was talking about ideas to improve a court program. I mentioned that after nearly a quarter century, he was still fully engaged in making things better. “I’m still having fun,” he said.

‘Gifted Personality’

By Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton ’90

There is so much to say about Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, yet so little space. One could fill a volume of a law review with articles about the chief’s remarkable leadership of the Ohio courts during the last quarter century, his success in enhancing the credibility and respect of the Ohio courts, his ability to navigate the shoals of countless vexing and high-profile cases, and his invaluable mentoring of so many young lawyers and judges, including me. But I would prefer to write about something else, the chief’s gifted personality, which goes a long way to explaining the depth of affection so many Ohioans from diverse perspectives have for him and which ought to set a timeless example for law students, lawyers, and other judges.

People who wear black robes and go by “your honor” may be esteemed in some quarters, but they are not invariably a popular group, particularly in view of their principal job responsibility: deciding cases, which means allocating disappointment to half of the lawyers and parties who appear before them. Why, then, was the chief so well liked by so many, whether in doling out victory or in doling out defeat? Part of it is that he truly was an excellent judge: a strong writer, a clear thinker, a creative problem solver. But part of it, maybe the better part of it, was his judicial demeanor, his pitch-perfect temperament. For him, temperament and judicial philosophy were nearly one and the same.

Call it what you will — an ideal judicial temperament, demeanor, or personality — the chief was blessed with all of it. Start with his open-mindedness. The chief was a skilled listener, whether in a private conversation or an oral argument. He genuinely wanted to hear what you had to say and was not merely waiting for a gap in the conversation to say what he wanted to say. He conveyed a sense of sympathy or in some cases empathy for the position you were taking. That did not mean he would agree with you; it did mean you would know he knew where you were coming from.

It did not hurt that the chief never pretended to have all of the answers and never took himself too seriously. He congenitally lacked the capacity to put on either air. If Judge Learned Hand was right that “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” The Spirit of Liberty: Papers and Addresses 144 (Irving Dillard ed., 1959), then Chief Justice Moyer was liberty’s ideal messenger and interpreter.

Although the chief was open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about old problems, he did not lack for convictions. Some legal problems presented an opportunity for compromise; some did not. And he understood the difference, and understood as well that there is nothing dishonorable about disagreement, only with taking it (and expressing it) personally. The chief in short may have been open-minded but he was not so open minded that, as the expression goes, his brains might fall out.

The chief’s parents must have raised him to be a gentleman, though I doubt he would have used that term today. But one lost art of being a “gentleman” or “gentlewoman” is the commitment, whether in private or public, not to put others in an uncomfortable position. The chief had acute antenna for sensing discomfort in others and had a remarkable capacity for avoiding it.

One method for defusing tension that he put to good use was his sense of humor. The chief loved to tell a good story, and he loved to hear one. And he was just as good in laughing at himself as at others. It takes a lot of effort to dislike someone with a good sense of humor, and even more so when they can poke fun at themselves. I had not known, until his death, that the chief was a “B” student in high school and the runner-up for senior class clown. Maybe we do not give enough credit to class clowns.

Perhaps as a result of his sense of humor and perhaps as a result of his even-keeled demeanor, the chief did not anger easily. While he must have had more than a few occasions in his career to feel frustration, I rarely sensed it. He had one of the highest boiling points I have come across, allowing him to remain quiet when others would have exploded, to give people the benefit of the doubt when others would have said enough is enough. If you hold a high office like chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court for a career, the odds are high that you will suffer through demagoguing cheap shots at some point. And surely, when that inevitability comes to pass, there must be a temptation to demagogue right back. I never saw the chief succumb.

All of this is not as easy as it seems. One reason, I suspect, that the chief was able to succeed where so many others fail is a sense of balance. His devoted family, his faith, his many friends and his many hobbies — sailing, gardening, Ohio State football — confirmed that he realized there was more to life than law, and must have made it easier for him to put some of the challenges of his public career in perspective.

Which brings me to my last point. There was something ruthlessly cruel about the chief’s sudden death — that he was robbed of a chance, a mere nine months away, to reflect on his many contributions to the Ohio judiciary during a well-earned retirement. But while the chief was robbed of that opportunity, young lawyers and law students were not. I am hopeful that the suddenness of his death, together with the universal acclaim for his career, will prompt others to follow his example.

‘Great Judge, But A Greater Man’

By Brian Lester ’05

On my first day as a law clerk for Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, he called me into his office to discuss “ground rules.” I was nervous, not knowing what to expect in the office of someone so established and well respected. Speaking in his slow, measured pace, he came up with three rules: (1) treat everyone with respect, (2) do not begin sentences with “however,” and (3) use footnotes sparingly, if at all. As I waited expectantly for more, a small smile crept onto his face.  “I may think of others at some point,” he said, “but that should be good for now.”

Though I had no idea what I was in for at that point, clerking for the chief was an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life. As a pure legal thinker, he was a model for all lawyers.   He approached each case without preconceptions, seeking only to find clarity in the law and fairness in the process. He valued economy and simplicity in concepts, recognizing that the law works best when all citizens can understand and apply it. While his brilliant legal mind, made stronger by his years of experience, often led him to the correct result, he was always willing to be persuaded by a well-framed argument.

The chief’s sheer force of personality, though, is what made him unforgettable. Though he exuded a calm, composed grace that befitted a man of his stature, it was impossible to miss the childlike twinkle in his eye. He found the humor in every circumstance, showcasing a sharp, often-surprising wit at all times, whether at the end of the day in chambers or from the bench in a tense oral argument. He never wavered from his first rule, treating attorneys, court employees, and visitors as honored peers.

It is one thing to hold a position of honor in the community; it is quite another to bring honor to the position. Chief Justice Moyer worked tirelessly to ensure that he lived up to the standards of his office, and in the process he exceeded every expectation. We have lost a great judge, but a greater man.

‘Our Leader And Our Friend’

By Ohio Senior Associate Justice Paul Pfeifer ’66

I First met Tom Moyer when he was a third-year law student at Ohio State. I was a trembling first year, still terrified that I might be called on in class to analyze a case that I hadn’t read. If you knew us then, you wouldn’t have envisioned two guys serving together on the Supreme Court of Ohio. I’m sure our classmates and professors never imagined that one day we’d be collaborating on cases that future generations of law students would be forced to read.

When Tom passed away he left a void in the Ohio judiciary that will be challenging to fill. With his quiet, dignified manner, Tom promoted a high level of professionalism and collegiality when he arrived at the Supreme Court in 1987. Under his leadership, the court moved into a magnificently restored home of its own – the Ohio Judicial Center. And he took the court into the digital age, providing us with an array of first-rate tools that brought the complete work of the court to your desktop. It was an impressive feat, especially for a man who was not technologically inclined. Tom also worked with leaders from around the country and the world to foster judicial independence in emerging democracies. For nearly 24 years he guided the court with a steady hand. Now, sadly, we have lost our leader and our friend, but the institution that he helped build and strengthen will endure as his lasting legacy.


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