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How favoritism has now infected our state’s last branch of government, the Ohio Supreme Court


How favoritism has now infected our state’s last branch of government, the Ohio Supreme Court

Mar 16, 2023 | 4:30 am ET
By David DeWitt
How favoritism has now infected our state’s last branch of government, the Ohio Supreme Court
Former Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters was tapped by Gov. Mike DeWine to fill a position on the Ohio Supreme Court. Photo from Gov. Mike DeWine's Office.

Ohioans concerned about corruption in Ohio’s legislature and executive offices won’t find much comfort looking to the Ohio Supreme Court, which has now also been infected by favoritism for DeWine family friends and anti-abortion special interests.

At the end of last year, Ohio Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was forced to retire due to age after playing the role of swing vote in a divided court on the issue of illegal gerrymandering.

O’Connor and the three Democratic justices on the court ruled Ohio’s gerrymandered Statehouse and Congressional district maps unconstitutional seven times before they were nevertheless forced upon voters last November.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy. Official photo.
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy. Official photo.

In November, Republican Justice Sharon Kennedy was elected to replace O’Connor as chief justice, leaving Kennedy’s open justice seat to be filled by Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.

How favoritism has now infected our state’s last branch of government, the Ohio Supreme Court
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Official photo from Vivien McClain Photography.

With hundreds of qualified, respectable judges that DeWine could have selected to fill the vacancy, DeWine instead chose to appoint a decades-long family friend who has expressed extremist positions as Hamilton County prosecutor; seems to have done an eye-popping favor at an extremely sensitive time for Gov. DeWine’s son, Justice Pat DeWine; and has zero judicial experience: Joe Deters.

Now part of a 4-3 reactionary right-wing majority on the Ohio Supreme Court, before Deters’ appointment, he was named in a lawsuit brought against the state’s extremist abortion ban that wreaked havoc on Ohioans’ lives for months and forced a 10-year-old rape survivor to flee the state for abortion care.

Deters thus recused himself from the case, but for his replacement Chief Justice Kennedy failed miserably in the new court’s first true test of legitimacy by selecting 12th District Court of Appeals Judge Matthew Byrne, who has served on an advisory board for an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center.

Once again in this example, Kennedy had dozens of qualified, respectable judges without conflicts from whom to choose. She chose the one with a glaring conflict.

Deters and the DeWines

The relationship between the DeWine family and Deters stretches back decades, and has been the subject of previous calls for ethics investigations. Now Deters is the first Ohio Supreme Court justice in 30 years to join the court without previous experience as a judge.

The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Scott Wartman reported last month that in January 2019, Deters hired Justice DeWine’s senior staff attorney, Mary Stier, as an assistant prosecutor in the Hamilton County appellate division making a salary of $100,000:

How favoritism has now infected our state’s last branch of government, the Ohio Supreme Court
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Patrick DeWine. Photo courtesy the Ohio Supreme Court.

Also in 2019, Justice DeWine’s wife filed for divorce. His wife accused him of adultery, according to court documents, though she didn’t elaborate in the documents. Justice DeWine in court filings denied the allegations of adultery.

Stier and Justice DeWine are currently in a relationship, the justice confirmed via a statement in an email to The Enquirer.

“Mary Stier and I are in a personal relationship and I’m proud of her distinguished legal career,” Justice DeWine said in the statement. He then defended Deters hiring Stier. “It’s easy to see why Justice Deters has trusted her expertise for many years.”

Stier is now back at the Supreme Court, the Enquirer reported, working as a senior judicial attorney for Deters. She started Jan. 7, 2023, the day Deters took the oath of office.

Pat DeWine and Mary Stier’s personal lives are not, and ought not be, a matter of public concern.

But, regardless of the legitimacy of Stier’s professional qualifications, it sure looks like Joe Deters played a role in helping the DeWine family clean up some sensitive issues at a critical time, and thus may have obtained some political capital, let’s say, that couldn’t have hurt his chances of becoming Ohio’s new Supreme Court justice, considering his utter lack of judicial experience.

“I know him. I trust him,” DeWine said of his decision to appoint Deters.

I’ll bet.

Favors-for-favors seems to be the order of the day when it comes to the DeWines and Deters.

Here are some ways the DeWines and Deters “know” and “trust” each other:

Gov. DeWine appointed Deters’ brother Dennis Deters to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in 2019 after he lost a race for a judicial position he was appointed to in replacement of Pat DeWine.

In 2017, Justice DeWine asked Deters to give his son an internship in the county prosecutor’s office and he did, leading to the aforementioned ethics complaint (which was eventually dismissed).

And, as the Cleveland.com Editorial Board wrote, Deters has made numerous, generous donations to the political campaigns of both DeWines.

Deters’ past when it comes to scandal is also not inspiring.

In 2004, Deters stepped down as Ohio Treasurer after two associates pleaded guilty in pay-to-play scandals at the treasurer’s office and the Hamilton County Republican Party.

How favoritism has now infected our state’s last branch of government, the Ohio Supreme Court
Center, former Ohio Republican Party chair, and statehouse lobbyist, Matt Borges with his attorneys outside of the federal courthouse. Photo courtesy of WEWS.

One of those associates was Deters’ former chief of staff and campaign fundraiser Matt Borges, who was convicted last week for felony racketeering in Ohio’s billion-dollar bailout and political bribery scandal.

In the previous scandal that led to Deters’ resignation, Borges pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of improper use of a public office.

Meanwhile, on the actual issues, Deters has flown off with some pretty horrifying ideas.

For instance, with regard to Ohio’s now-discontinued lethal injection method for executions, a frustrated Prosecutor Deters advocated bringing back the firing squad. Hamilton County has also been responsible for more executions than any county in Ohio since capital punishment returned to the state in 1981.

The outlook for Deters and gerrymandering doesn’t bode well either. Pat DeWine has refused to recuse himself from redistricting cases, despite ethics experts saying he has a glaring conflict of interest, so fat chance that Deters recuses himself either.

And considering Deters’ relationship with the DeWines, it strains all credulity that he will hold the same honorable dedication to the rule of law, democracy, and Ohio voters displayed by O’Connor.

So in the end, what are Ohioans looking at with regard to our new Ohio Supreme Court?

One member of the DeWine family who won’t recuse himself from key redistricting cases; a longtime DeWine family friend with no judicial experience and a history of extreme positions and scandals; and a chief justice who sees nothing wrong with appointing replacement justices with obvious conflicts of interest.

If these people were carrying out a detailed step-by-step plan on how to create massive public distrust in every single one of Ohio’s pillar institutions, it’s hard to see how they could do a better job than everything they are doing right now.

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