The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

November 17, 2013

Former Geneva attorney enjoys being a justice on Ohio Supreme Court

Star Beacon

— Bill O’Neill believes he has the best job in the world.

The former Geneva attorney is nearing the end of his first year on the Ohio Supreme Court and marvels at his new job.

“The job has turned out to be substantially bigger than I thought it was,” O’Neill said. He said the political make up of the court was a bit of a concern, but it has turned out to be a wonderful dynamic on the Ohio Supreme Court.

“As the sole Democrat on the panel, I thought I would feel isolated,” O’Neill said. He said that has not been the case and a group of new justices has made the transition easier.

“I find myself marveling at the coalitions that form around an idea,” O’Neill said.

The amount of reading necessary to react to potential cases is significant, O’Neill said. “We deal with those matters that (can) effect 11 million people,” he said of the process that determines which cases are heard by the court.

“If we look at 100 cases on a given day, we will probably take in 10 cases,” O’Neill said. He said all the cases still need to be read prior to the decision on whether or not to hear them.

One of the refreshing elements of the job is much of the work can be done anywhere. He said it is the first job he has had where nobody cares where the work is done.

O’Neill said he spends three days a week at an office created at the John Marshall School of Law at Cleveland State. He also has an office at his Chagrin Falls home and space at the Ohio Supreme Court in Columbus.

“Each case I find fascinating,” O’Neill said.

One of the challenges during the hearing of a case is being the last to ask questions. “As a junior justice I am the last to speak,” he said.

O’Neill said the court is far from unanimous and often has 4-3 votes, but there aren’t any real blocks of votes that move from case to case.

O’Neill, and the rest of the Ohio Supreme Court, bring a variety of life experiences to the bench. “I don’t think there are any two members of the court that are identical (in experience),” he said.

While O’Neill has been a newspaper reporter, television reporter, trial lawyer, military officer and nurse, he is not alone in varied background.

He said other justices have worked as prosecutors, farmers, a lawyer for lawyers, a police officer and a teacher to name a few.

“We don’t have anything in common other than we are justices,” O’Neill said.

He said the judiciary has an easier time getting over political differences because of the six-year terms.

“A member of Congress has to be fundraising on the first day they are in office,” O’Neill said.

Being the new judge on the block has worked out well, O’Neill said. “I’ve literally been given the luxury to take the first year to learn my job,” he said.

O’Neill said he is in awe of what comes out of the mouths of fellow justices during deliberation.

O’Neill said his experience as a nurse has helped in medical cases and his trial lawyer work helped when reviewing evidentiary cases.

O’Neill believes other life experiences have helped him on the court. “I went to nursing school at age 50 in East Cleveland and I was not the oldest in my class,” he said of his educational experience in a class of mostly older black women.

He also served a tour-of-duty as an officer in Vietnam.

All of these experiences helped make O’Neill the person that will make decisions that will effect Ohio residents for decades.

“I would call it the best job in America. You can make a difference,” O’Neill said.