By Eric Geller
Kenyon celebrated the U.S. Constitution’s 226th birthday on Tuesday, Sept. 17, with a visit from Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith L. French, who discussed the document’s enduring importance and quizzed her audience on its history.
The question that stumped the audience was, “What did the Senate initially want to call the president?” The answer: “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of their Liberties.”
French’s talk in the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater, “Our Modern Constitution: What’s in It for Us?”, was held in honor of Constitution Day, a federal holiday commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.
In 2004, late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia created the holiday by attaching an amendment to a federal spending bill that required any educational institution receiving federal funds to “hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on Sept. 17.”
French served as a judge on the Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals for six years, from 2004 to 2010. In December 2012, Governor John Kasich appointed her to the state Supreme Court to replace a retiring justice. She began her term at the beginning of this year. In an interview with the Collegian before the event, she said the many changes to the original document reflected a spirit of progress.
“I think if we only celebrate everything that the founders did in 1787, we really miss the beauty of the Constitution itself, which is that it can change, that it can be amended,” French said. “It took more than the original document to give every citizen in this country the freedoms that we all think of as our fundamental rights.”
During her talk, French discussed the inner workings of the Ohio Supreme Court, including how the justices discuss cases, how they vote and how they determine who will write the opinions laying out the court’s reasoning in each case.
“In Ohio,” French told the audience, “it’s decided by marbles.”
Each justice has a marble with his or her number on it. After everyone has voted, and the case has been decided, the members of the majority place their marbles in a bottle. The justice whose marble is drawn is assigned the opinion for that case.
“I know that there’s a joke there about losing marbles on the court,” French joked, “but I haven’t quite figured that out.”
Previous Constitution Day events at Kenyon have included visits by Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Lessig and former Congressman Zack Space ’82. Assistant Professor of Political Science Thomas Karako, who directs Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy, said turnout at these events has been high.
“I think what’s impressive about a place like Kenyon is that ﾅ [while] Constitution Day is not the Fourth of July ﾅ the turnout is reliably good,” Karako said. “I think that the engagement of students about some topic related to the Constitution reflects Kenyon students’ engagement in current affairs generally.”
Kenyon students are, of course, subject to Ohio law and French holds intimate knowledge of that law.
In the case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, French represented Ohio in front of the U.S. Surpreme Court in Feb. 2002. At issue was an Ohio school voucher program in which many of the participating private schools were religiously affiliated. The establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Ultimately, in June of 2002, the Court ruled in favor of the state, holding that the school voucher program did not violate the establishment clause.
“We were talking about whether scholarships provided by the government that ended up in the hands of religious schools violated the provision against the establishment of religion,” French said. “We are looking at it through the lens of a modern issue, but we still go back to that original language to say, ﾑWhat was intended by this rule of ﾑestablishment of religion’ and how can we ﾅ frame the answer, depending on the modern issue that’s in front of us?'”
In the coming months, according to French, the Ohio Supreme Court will release its opinion in a case with close ties to the Mount Vernon community. The case concerns a Mount Vernon Middle School teacher named John Freshwater, who was fired in 2011 for allegedly waving a Bible in front of his students, distributing religious material and teaching creationism during lessons about evolution.
“[Freshwater] claimed that his rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion had been violated by the school district’s actions,” French said.
As is standard practice, she would not discuss the merits of the case before the Court’s opinion was released.