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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Reflections from the Bench, Episode 6: Late Justice James Celebrezze

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Hello, I’m Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat Fischer. For our continuing series, “Reflections from the Bench,” I had the special pleasure to sit down with former Justice James Celebrezze. The interview took place in his hometown of Cleveland. It was a lively discussion, as you are about to see. Sadly, Justice Celebrezze passed away not long after that interview, at the age of 83, and before we had a chance to broadcast his reflections. James Celebrezze was the 138th justice and served on the Ohio Supreme Court from 1983 to 1985. I want to specifically thank his family for helping us continue the production work on this program after his passing, and for sharing with us the many family photos you are about to see. It was an honor for me to join with Justice Celebrezze, in looking back on his record as a judge and justice, and to acknowledge his service to all Ohioans. I hope you enjoy this segment of “Reflections from the Bench.”

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Welcome. I’m Supreme Court Justice Pat Fisher, and this is a chance to look back on the legacies of those who have served on the top court of Ohio. Joining me today is former Ohio Supreme Court Justice James Patrick Celebrezze. I love that middle name. Welcome. I’m glad you're here.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Your Honor.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Your honor. Justice, you left the court in 1985, right? What are you doing these days?

Former Justice Celebrezze: As you can tell from my attire, I'm retired. I basically do nothing except what my wife tells me.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Well, we all live that way. We’re in a courtroom where your daughter Leslie is the judge, and you were the judge in this courtroom, too.

Former Justice Celebrezze: I occupied this room for 18 years.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Domestic relations judge.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Domestic relations.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Did you like that practice?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I did very much.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Could you tell the viewers why?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I just think about domestic relations is that you see a lot of good people at their worst. And I think it just is comforting that I hope that I made their experience a little more pleasant than it normally would be.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: It’s tough.

Former Justice Celebrezze: It’s a tough job to go through.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: You were on the court for about two, two-and-a-half years.

Former Justice Celebrezze: That's right.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: You miss anything from it?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I don’t miss all the reading at this point. I’ll tell you that, as you well know.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: I’m told by my law clerks, I read between 100 and 500 pages a day. About the same?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Probably what I was doing.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Do you miss the writing?

Former Justice Celebrezze: A little bit. But, you know, my problem is that I unfortunately, or fortunately, have been retired for so long, I've forgotten all of it.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Well, let’s go back to your beginnings. After college, you served time in the Army.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: And then what?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Then I served 10 years in the state legislature. I graduated, as my biography will tell you, from what used to be Cleveland-Marshall Law School. The most interesting comment to law school was one summer, the summer of my freshman year of law school, I was in three law schools at one time. That’s because I had made my mind up when I got elected to the legislature that I would graduate with my class. So as a result, I would take a course, while the legislature was in session, at Ohio State.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Down in Columbus.

Former Justice Celebrezze: In Columbus, where the legislature sat, and then in the summer, I took courses at Western Reserve so that I could stay with my class at Cleveland-Marshall.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Oh, that’s great. So, you graduated on time. While working full time.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Interestingly enough, my four friends, all of whom were going to be in my wedding party, took the bar at the same time, and, fortunately, we all passed. So, our wedding was a very joyful experience.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Heck of a party. Sounds like it. OK, now, after the legislature and passing the bar, what next?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I served with domestic relations for several years, and I was fortunate to go to the Supreme Court for two. And then I came back to the domestic relations and to start my 30 years or it’s 40 (years). I hate to think about it, in domestic relations.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: 40 years of public service.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yep.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: That’s tremendous. Thank you. Now, when you ran, you beat the name Krupansky?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: That was a big name at the time.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes, it was.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Tell me about the campaign. What do you remember?

Former Justice Celebrezze: We just campaigned. I don't think you campaigned like we used to in the old days. You watch the campaigns today and it's all money. In those days, I think if you spent $5,000 or $10,000, that was a fortune.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Did you go around to Rotaries and stuff?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I went to wherever I could. I spoke a lot to groups, to any group that I could find.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: When you got there, your brother was already there.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: He was the chief.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: How was that having your brother there?

Former Justice Celebrezze: It was an experience. You know, I mean, I had to watch my p’s and q’s because if I did something wrong, I’d hear about it.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: What’s your best memory? What’s your fondest memory of being on the Court?

Former Justice Celebrezze: The thing that I’m most proud of is that, and nobody recognizes it because it’s a domestic case, but the Castle decision, which I sponsored, and I knew about, because I had served in domestic court. I know I had the feeling that what went on with the people who are divorced, with children who are special needs.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: In fact, you wrote, I was looking at the list, a lot of divorce cases when you were on the Court: Nolan v. Nolan, Gross v. Gross. These are the ones that are still referenced, Zakani v. Zakani. And there was another one, yes, Hall v. Button. But they had changed their names. In those days, how did they pick who wrote the opinions?

Former Justice Celebrezze: The same way they do it now, just by lot. I would always wind up, probably because I was the only member of the Court that had served any time in domestic court, that I guess, hopefully, the other judges looked at me like, ‘This guy might know something that we don’t.’

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: And you would have been in the majority most of the time in those cases. So, you would be in the bottle to be rolled out.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Right.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: So, it makes sense. Any not-so-great memories?

Former Justice Celebrezze: No, I think the two years that I was there, I enjoyed it. The worst part, I suppose, is like my time in the legislature was driving up and down, I-71. You get to know every cow that's out there.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: And every exit and what gas stations are open at what hours. I know the feeling, only mine is from Columbus to Cincinnati. Same, same idea, though.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yep.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Well, let’s talk a little bit about your daughter. She’s in this courtroom. She’s a domestic relations judge, just like dad.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Right.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Are you proud of her, as I know, I am of my daughter? Tell me about that. How did it feel to see her sworn in and take over your courtroom?

Former Justice Celebrezze: You know, that was probably one of the highlights of my wife’s and my career as parents.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Dads and daughters have a kind of special relationships. Is she doing a good job?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes, she’s the administrative judge. She’d better be.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Okay, watching your daughter on the bench, is it more difficult to be a judge today than 30 years ago, or is it easier with all the computers and all that?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Oh, I don't know. For sure, it’s harder because I think with all the computers, there’s just so much, like you said, you read 500 pages a day. And I’m sure that…

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Most of it is online.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Even as a lowly municipal judge, you could be doing that because there’s so much online, there’s so much to read that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Let me ask you this. I always say trial judges have 100% authority because they don't have to talk to anybody, right. Appellate judges have 50% authority because they got to get somebody to agree with them. But the Supreme Court, I say you only have 25% authority because if you don't get three others, you’ve got nothing. How did you feel it was different being a judge versus a justice?

Former Justice Celebrezze: As a trial judge, you’re the authority. You know, I always kid about the comment that somebody made about federal judges that they said, ‘I never met God, but I knew a federal judge.’

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Yeah, they call it robitis these days. If you had to do it over again, would you have run for Supreme Court?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I would if I could have convinced my wife to move to Columbus. Yes, but, unfortunately, I don’t think she really wanted to move.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Mine doesn’t either. So, I commute back and forth. What was it like? Because I know you when you were in the JAG for a while, too.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes, right. I retired from the JAG.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: OK, but that was the Navy.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Why did an Army guy become a Navy JAG?

Former Justice Celebrezze: One of my law partners, or guys I practiced law with, he had been in the Navy. After we were practicing law a little bit, he said, ‘You know, you can get a commission as in the Navy JAG.’ And I said, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ He says, ‘Because I want to do it. So, I say, ‘All right.’ So, we both went down and took the test and we got accepted into the program. And I wound up with him as a Navy JAG and I did my 20 (years) and retired.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Tell me the difference between being a judge in a civil court, domestic relations, and being a judge and JAG.

Former Justice Celebrezze: When you’d go on active duty, you'd only do it for two weeks at a time. Most of the time you were just a JAG officer and they really would put you to work writing wills and that kind of thing. On the bench, they would give you the minor cases that were easy enough. Generally, the individual that had done something wrong was pleading. So, was just kind of a you could take the lead and…

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: It wasn’t a full court martial?

Former Justice Celebrezze: No, I never did a real what would you call trials in the JAG. But it was fun. It was enjoyable. And I’m glad I did it.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: In 1984, Craig Wright took you on, right?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Right.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: How was that campaign? Any different?

Former Justice Celebrezze: No. We did the about the same as we had done in 1982. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Happens sometimes, but then you came back here.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: And you went back on the bench.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Yes

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Did you miss having colleagues to discuss cases with?

Former Justice Celebrezze: No

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Because that’s one thing I like. I enjoy that part of the conference when you’re in deliberations talking about it. How did you feel about that?

Former Justice Celebrezze: You know, I enjoy the conferences. But it’s always nice to be on the winning side.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: In the majority?

Former Justice Celebrezze: Being in the majority.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: How did you feel about writing dissents?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I wrote them and I probably felt I was right and the people that were in the majority were wrong.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: But they had the votes.

Former Justice Celebrezze: But they had the votes.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer How was it? Were you ever on the other side where your brother was in the majority and you were dissent or the other way around? I was wondering how that was?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I believe…

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: I think there are some.

Former Justice Celebrezze: I think there were some cases. Trust me, I can’t remember. But there were some instances, where yeah, I felt my brother was wrong. I wasn’t going to tell him.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Well, you told him in writing, very politely. I noticed about your writing, you’re very polite. And that’s, to me, important too. But how did it feel saying, ‘Big brother, you’re wrong.’

Former Justice Celebrezze: That’s about what I said. And then we let it go.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Just let it go.

Former Justice Celebrezze: ‘In that case you write a dissent.’ ‘OK, I will.’

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you think you want to tell people so when they're watching this years from now?

Former Justice Celebrezze: There was a fellow, and his witness in his divorce was his wife. Obviously, you’re a lady that was. Here they are, holding hands. I called the lawyer after in the back, and I said, ‘What’s the story?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, he has a terminal illness, and he was married to this lady and they were both retired teachers.’ And because of the the strange retirement system, Ohio’s retirement system, the only way you can take out an annuity is if you’re not married, and you get married. So, since he was going to die, he had to divorce his wife, do the paperwork and then marry her, again. I said, ‘Are they getting married?’ He said, ‘Well, they lived in, I think, Middleburg and the mayor in Middleburg was going to marry them.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if they have a problem, just let me know.’ About an hour later, the lawyer comes in and says, ‘Judge, the mayor can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll be happy to do it.’

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: So, you did the divorce?

Former Justice Celebrezze: I divorced them in the morning and married them in the afternoon. And I thought that was the nicest thing that ever happened.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer: That is a great story. I want to thank you for your time.

Former Justice Celebrezze: It was my pleasure.

Justice Patrick F. Fischer I want to end on that story because that is hilarious. Thank you. Justice.

Former Justice Celebrezze: Thank you.