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2013 in Review: Ohio Supreme Court Takes Up Medicaid Expansion, Religious Posters and JobsOhio

Monday, December 23, 2013 at 9:44 AM

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Ohio Supreme Court in session. (ideastream file photo by Karen Kasler)

There weren’t a lot of attention-getting cases before the Ohio Supreme Court in 2013. But as Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler reports, the ones that did make news were big.

One of the biggest rulings came two and a half weeks before the end of the year—the decision that upheld Medicaid expansion.

A sharply divided court split 4-3 in ruling against six Republican lawmakers and two anti-abortion groups. The groups had sued over the Controlling Board’s decision to allow $2.5 billion in federal money to be spent on Medicaid expansion, which was backed by Gov. John Kasich but had been stripped by Republicans from his budget.

There were no arguments in that case—it had been fast-tracked to get a ruling before the start of 2014.

The beginning of 2013 brought before the court a case that seemed to have major implications on freedom of speech and religion in schools. Eighth grade science teacher John Freshwater was fired in 2008 for keeping his Bible and a poster featuring a Biblical verse in his classroom after he was ordered to remove them.

David Smith argued for the Mt. Vernon City Schools, and told the Ohio Supreme Court in February that Freshwater’s actions—or inaction—was insubordination.

“The principal had directed Mr. Freshwater to remove objects and he didn’t,” Smith said.

But Freshwater’s lawyer Rita Dunaway had argued that her client was teaching supporting and opposing views on evolution—and that’s what got him fired.

“Here you have an ad hoc, non-policy-based termination that is censorship and manifests religious hostility,” Dunaway said.

The justices ruled the school district did infringe on Freshwater’s First Amendment rights by ordering him to remove his personal Bible, but said he was insubordinate for keeping the poster and other items.

But the court did not rule on whether Freshwater was unconstitutionally teaching his religious beliefs, which dissenting Justice Paul Pfeifer said disappointed him.

A few months later, the justices ruled on another big case, saying that employer-provided benefits such as a car, insurance, cell phone or even Ohio State football tickets should be included in calculating child support payments.

Jeffrey Morrow of Medina had wanted to reduce his child support payments when his income dropped in 2009. But Tom Morris, representing Morrow’s ex-wife, told the court in arguments in June that benefits such as an employer-provided car should count.

“If you are given one to use at your discretion, then it absolutely should count, because those are dollars that you do not have to spend on your own vehicle,” Morris said.

Court watchers are waiting for a few other big rulings, including one in what is arguably one of the biggest cases of the year—whether Progress Ohio, the conservative Ohio Roundtable and two Democratic state lawmakers have standing to sue regarding JobsOhio.

Both sides got the same question in arguments in November: Who has standing to sue the state in a case like this?

Maurice Thompson of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, a conservative group, argued for Progress Ohio, and said potentially anyone in the state does.

“It’s imperative in certain cases, including this one, that any Ohioans in their capacity as a citizen or a taxpayer have the standing to enforce the Constitution,” Thompson said.

But state deputy solicitor Steven Carney said Progress Ohio’s argument is dangerous and goes against years of established case law.

“They want you to throw away all that precedent, let everybody sue, as long as it’s a constitutional challenge.”

If the court sides with Progress Ohio, that could open the door for a final ruling on whether JobsOhio was created constitutionally.

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