Host Sean Harris talks with Ohio Supreme Court Justice Melody Stewart. Justice Stewart talks about her law background and her time on the bench throughout her career.
Sean: Hello I’m your host Sean Harris and this is episode 45 of Civilly Speaking brought to you by the Ohio Association for Justice. Today is March 25th and I’m here with our very special guest Justice Melody Stewart. Justice Stewart thanks very much for joining us here on Civilly Speaking.
Justice Stewart: Thank you for having me.
Sean: I want to start by congratulating you obviously on your election to the Supreme Court and thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. You’ve kind of always aspired to be on the bench but earlier in life it was a different bench, a piano bench, that caught your attention. Tell us about how you got interested in the piano and how that came to be.
Justice Stewart: Well as I often said to people on the campaign trail with a name like Melody what else would I study in an undergraduate school right? So I do have a bachelor’s degree in music from the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. I will tell you the exact way I came about studying music when I was in kindergarten back in the days when public schools still had pianos in the classroom, imagine that, my kindergarten teacher played the piano. We had a piano in our classroom and she would play and we gather around and sing songs. That was part of the curriculum in the morning when we came in and sometimes during the day. So when it was time for the kids to go out for recess I would go over to the piano. I just was amazed by this, this thing that played these notes that kept us in beat and kept us in pitch in and so I would try to pick out the tunes that she played and after doing that on several occasions one day when my mother came to pick me up from school my kindergarten teacher said to her you know I think you ought to take her to the Cleveland Music School Settlement and start her with music lessons to see if she’s interested. I was about five and a half or six. My mother did she took me to the Settlement where I studied theory first because I think you had to study theory before they allowed you to study an instrument and then I studied piano classical piano and then after about seven years six or seven years that took up classical guitar. So, through my entire secondary education I studied music along with algebra and French and trigonometry and science.
Sean: And do you have time to play piano these days?
Justice Stewart: I don’t have as much time as I’d like every now and then I do go by and sit and play to be sure of my piano still tuned in undergraduate school I studied theory and composition and so what I do more so because it’s easier with technology is if I can think of a passage or a tune to compose I’ll sit down with my music software my keyboard and I’ll compose something and the technology the software just throws it up right there as opposed to using a number two pencil and an eraser like I had to do an undergraduate school. So I don’t get to do either as much as I’d like but hopefully that’ll change soon.
Sean: Now and speaking of composing I’m saying that right. You have written some music?
Justice Stewart: I have nothing that I have to keep my day job for sure, but most recently I worked on helped to write some music for a short film called St. Valentine Day Massacre I think it was called. It was recently up for an award in Los Angeles for a music festival so I started the project before I ran for the court and unfortunately didn’t get to stay into it as much and took a second a backseat kinda to doing it but still made some contributions there so I think it’s available online. So that was that was the good for a kind of back into.
Sean: Sure, now I also understand that you earned a PhD in social sciences from Case Western?
Justice Stewart: Yes.
Sean: Tell us about those doctorate studies what did you study?
Justice Stewart: I studied, so I got a PhD in social welfare and the policy route again that was it was a program that just kind of fell in my lap quite frankly. I had been out of law school for about 12 or 13 years and actually I was going to the Mandel School to meet someone to talk about running for the Court of Appeals and stumbled into the program and it’s a story that’s too long and too detailed to get into, but ultimately I did apply and was accepted as a Mandel Leadership Fellow and it was fascinating I never thought I would find myself back in school after law school and I never thought that they were actually subject matters that I knew nothing about but regression analysis and those sort of things I knew nothing about. So those were make or break me courses but fortunately I did well. And so that program allowed me to write papers that were all law and social science related because you got to choose most of your topics you just had to do the work and do the research into the analysis and that program also I think helps me to ask the right questions as an appellate court judge and so it took me a while to complete it you know when you’re go back to school after being in the workforce work gets away with life and life gets in the way of work and work gets in the way of school and all of that. So I completed the dissertation ironically while I was on the bench at the Court of Appeals.
Sean: Fantastic. And somewhere and forgive me the timing of this, you also managed a health care staffing company.
Justice Stewart: Right that was long before law. That was right. That was between undergraduate school and law school for a year.
Sean: Very good. What drew you to law school in the first place?
Justice Stewart: That working at that place the health care staffing company the first of all I need to say my older sister is an attorney or I should say was an attorney because she hasn’t practiced in quite some time and she went to law school we actually graduated about ten years apart and she was in law school when I was in high school and she worked full time and she studied part time and I remember thinking myself I would never do that because I thought she should be bonding with me as opposed to studying law. But the vice president the company I worked for was in law school at the time part time and he would come in and sit his books down and I would look through them and they were just interesting and I’d been at the job for about a year and I thought you know this law school stuff seems interesting. So I applied literally on a whim, didn’t know the process of my application to law school was so unsophisticated particularly compared to the way students apply now.
Sean: You didn’t go to the websites say and plug it in?
Justice Stewart: What was a website? Exactly. Not only did the websites not exist and let me tell you I only did my last paper in law school on a computer all my other papers were done on a typewriter. For those of you who are like under 30 you don’t know what typewriters are, please ask someone but at least it was an electric one.
Sean: Oh wow.
Justice Stewart: So I didn’t, U.S. News and World Report didn’t know about that. Law school prep tests you know LSAT prep I got a good night’s sleep took to number two pencils ate breakfast went in took the LSAT and so I found myself in law school and I guess the rest is kind of history from there.
Sean: Sure. So we’ve covered health care management company law school administrator and professor but then in 2006 public service entered your mind and you ran for the Court of Appeals. Was that your first forte?
Justice Stewart: It was it was not I ran for the Court of Appeals in 1999-2000 for the 2000 election. I wasn’t successful in the primary then and I also ran for the same for the court again in 2002. Got closer, but still not successful. So 2006 I ran it was going to be my final time it was you know the third time’s a charm I just figured if it didn’t happen then it wasn’t meant to happen and I would stay in law academe where I was perfectly content and I only ran for the appellate court because being in law academe the Court of Appeals and being a law professor were very similar to me. It was the researching and the writing component and I had been out a full-time practice for quite some time. So I didn’t think the trial I thought was better suited for the appellate court as opposed to the trial court and so in 2006, it was a successful endeavor and I have worked in the public sector for a large part of my life. When I practiced law I was doing assistant civil defense litigation offices of Cleveland in East Cleveland for a while so you know public working in the public sector has just always been there for me and I’ve worked both in the public and private sector and I don’t work any different in either way so but it just so happens that someone suggested that I run and I took them up on that suggestion.
Sean: As you think back to your time on the Court of Appeals are there cases or opinions or decisions that stick out in your mind?
Justice Stewart: Sure there are and ironically most of them are a dissenting opinion or minority opinions. There are a couple that will always be with me one and two of the cases dealt with DNA testing of having someone exonerated for crimes they did not commit and those individuals have since then as I said exonerated and have been released but after spending a considerable my time in prison for crimes they did not commit. Those are probably my most important one was the majority opinion and one was a dissenting opinion that ultimately led to some more litigation down the road that led to the release. So those are the decisions I always say if I never render another decision again in life, I’m happy that I got to participate in those.
Sean: Fantastic. There was one case out of the Eighth District Court of Appeals in which you wrote a dissent that would be of interest to our members and that is my Marusa v. Erie Insurance Company. In that case the court held that a police officer who was negligent driving caused a crash with Marusa’s vehicle was immune from civil liability or Erie Insurance cited the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act in which police drivers are immune from liability even when they’re at fault with an innocent victim. Do you remember that case?
Justice Stewart: I do.
Sean: Do you remember your dissent and what sticks out?
Justice Stewart: I do and that was another case that I was going to mention just before you brought up because that case dealing with insured who was severely injured I believe the driver the insured in that case and her daughter were severely injured. Police officer responding to an emergency call there’s no question there was immunity there, but the driver has insurance. Full coverage, Uninsured coverage, Underinsured coverage and her company said well because our policy says you can only recover from or you can recover from when someone else’s that you’re legally obligated or legally entitled I’m sorry to recover from then, but because you’re not legally entitled to recover from the city of Westlake we don’t know your coverage. That was one of the most absurd propositions I have ever read and so I think I said that in the dissenting opinion. I remember discussing that case with my colleagues and not only saying how I think their interpretation of the Supreme Court case they used to cold the way they did, I thought they were interpreting the case wrong because they talked to and I can’t remember the exact Supreme Court case but it talked about the ability to contract certain aspects of your policy away and that wasn’t what this case was about. But more importantly I said do you understand the ramifications that this case could have. That means Ohioans driving around who pay for Underinsured and Uninsured motors coverage could be hit by an ambulance, a fire truck, a police car responding to emergency vehicle, the municipality has absolutely no responsibility and no liability to pay and then the insurance companies to turn around and say we don’t either. So what are we paying for it now and so fortunately the Supreme Court saw the error of the majority decision and reversed using some of the dissent.
Sean: That’s got to feel gratifying and I know that that’s an issue that I talked about with my clients all the time that they say gosh I did everything right, I wasn’t at fault for the crash, I did the right thing and protecting myself and my family by buying this coverage and you’re telling me I can’t use the coverage I paid for.
Justice Stewart: Absolutely. That’s the very thing I said with the discussion.
Sean: From the court appeals, obviously you campaigned and were successful for the high court. Tell us about the campaign took you all over the state I gather?
Justice Stewart: It did, it did.
Sean: Where did you go?
Justice Stewart: I went to every corner of the state. Of course, I live in northeast Ohio but I went to northwest Ohio, southwest, central and southeast. I had a goal of visiting all the other 87 counties, ones I don’t live in obviously and I was not successful unfortunately. I think I got to about 62 but I still went to every corner of the state and you know what I found is that we are really more alike than we are unalike. Everybody wants good government. People want their tax dollars to work wisely for them. They want public officials to be good stewards of fiscal resources and from the justice system standpoint people want to feel like they’re being treated with respect, that there is fairness in our system, that people can recover when they need to, that they can get good lawyers and have be fairly represented in the court system and so I’ve thought you know we need to we can make our justice system better we can make our judicial system better and our legal system better. There’s always ways to improve things and not that we have a bad one, we don’t, but we can improve, and I think it needs to start at the highest level of our judiciary and that’s the Supreme Court. So that’s one of the reasons I ran.
Sean: You’ve been on the court now for about three months.
Justice Stewart: Yes.
Sean: Anything surprised you so far?
Justice Stewart: No surprises. I’ll say this that my former colleagues on the 8th district will probably chuckle so and not only the Eighth District Appellate Court judges but even some of the judges from the other appellate districts across the state when we would go to conferences, etc., we would wonder you know it’s all the Supreme Court they don’t put out very many cases and then you know we work so much harder and we have all these cases and but at the appellate court level we sit in panels of three. Everything here is on bah (15:09), it’s the whole court. All seven of us have to weigh in on everything and so the amount of work the work both intellectually on a regular basis and volume wise has increased, so it’s the quality and it’s the quantity of the work, but there is an amazing staff here at the Supreme Court from you know the justices all the way down to the people who take care of the building and everyone wants to make sure that we put out the best product and we do our best work here so I think as I said in my swearing in ceremony, it’s been both overwhelming and rewarding at the same time.
Sean: Tell us a little bit about the decision process where from oral argument to voting and majority dissenting opinions those kinds of things.
Justice Stewart: So we as you all know we hear cases on Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings. They are live broadcasts so if any of you want to watch them on Ohio channel and after we have hearings we go into conference and we discuss the cases that we heard that day we discuss jurisdictional decisions and we do things like this too even on days when we’re not in hearings looking at jurisdictionals and memoranda in support of jurisdiction to get into the court ruling on direct appeals, looking at original actions, entertaining motions for delayed appeals for reconsideration, looking at recommendations for being admitted to the practice of law without examination, looking at disciplinary matters for lawyers and judges across the state. So there are a whole host of things that go and then we get to the administrative aspect of the job. So we’re currently in the process of hiring a new administrative director. We get reports from various commissions, recommendations on rule changes, personnel decisions so we haven’t a whole administrative docket that goes along with our judicial with our case responsibilities and then we all have to weigh in on everything.
Sean: Everybody gets a vote.
Justice Stewart: Imagine that. So and one of my friends a son’s once asked if the Chief Justice got two votes.
Justice Stewart: And I said she might want two votes, but no she gets one like the rest of us.
Sean: Talk to us about going forward from here what do you see your role as on the court, do you have any goals or things you want to accomplish during your time here?
Justice Stewart: I do. I am still probably not to anybody’s surprise getting my legs up under me on the job and still learning a lot while keeping up with my responsibilities on the court, but I hope that I along with my colleagues because I can do nothing by myself, I hope that we look at every aspect of our judicial , getting input from the other members of the bench, getting input from the people who work in our judicial systems from the attorneys to the court personnel and staff, and input from citizens on things that that they see across the county and across the state quite frankly that would make our judicial system better. People shouldn’t lose jobs because they have to continue to come back to court for continuances. Maybe that means we have more evening or weekend hours so people who have to come to court for things like traffic violations or misdemeanor charges can get those adjudicated and taken care of and not have to lose their jobs, bail bond form of course, and so there are a lot of things where we can have all sides sitting down or giving input and figure out how we can make it better. Everybody might not walk away perfectly happy, but if we can improve at all aspects of the of the legal system and the judiciary then it’s better for everyone.
Sean: Well Justice Stewart thank you very much for being here today we appreciate it.
Justice Stewart: Thank you for having me.
Sean: And thank you to all our listeners out there if you like our show and want to learn more check out civillyspeaking.com or please leave us a review on iTunes and we’ll see you here on the next episode of Civilly Speaking.