This week I was reminded of the majesty of our criminal justice system. I argued a case on behalf of the State of Ohio (my office) at the Ohio Supreme Court located down in Columbus. Sidenote: If you haven’t ever been inside the Supreme Court, please go. The courthouse is the perfect living monument to exhibit the honor of being in the legal profession and the responsibility that comes with being a lawyer.
As I was preparing for my argument in the weeks before, I was reminded of how a court and judges can change the trajectory of a criminal case with one simple decision, and, in our case, the Court of Appeals did just that. I’m not going to argue the merits of that decision because well, that’s just not proper, and, at this point, it is what it is. When we got the decision back from the Court of Appeals, we felt it was our duty to challenge that decision, and we requested the Supreme Court hear our arguments. Now, the process to get into the Supreme Court as the State of Ohio is a bit more complicated than just sending a request, but you get the picture. The criminal defendant (appellee) also has the opportunity to tell the Supreme Court why it should not hear the State’s appeal, and then the Supreme Court decides if it will take the case. In this instance, the Supreme Court did accept our case.
Once the Supreme Court says yes, both parties, the State of Ohio and the criminal defendant, can file written legal arguments (called briefs), and then the court sets the case for “oral argument.” Oral argument is what I appeared at earlier this week. When you make an oral argument, you have a total of 15 minutes to present your argument. And let me tell you, that is not a long time! Lawyers, especially this one, can talk for hours about legal things that interest them! Oral argument isn’t a speech, well it can be, but more than likely, the Supreme Court justices will interrupt you and ask you questions. The questions can be about anything related to your case — the facts, the procedural history, or why they should agree with your position — and the questions can even point out the flaws of your argument and/or the potential detrimental implications your position could have on the legal system. Talk about the hot seat!
In preparation for the argument, I had about 10 typed pages (size super large font to ensure I could read it amidst my nervousness) of prepared remarks. Well, I got about ¾ of one page stated before one of the Justices asked a question. Then another question. Then another question. If I’m being honest that was my biggest fear — being peppered with questions the entire time. But, now that I am not still shaking in my boots and a bundle of nerves, I can say it was fun. What was fun about it was not the fact that we were at the Supreme Court — that fact and the underlying criminal case is not fun. But the enjoyable part was the legal exercise that, as a lawyer, I got to experience. It really was a bucket list moment as a prosecutor because it is quite rare to appear before the Supreme Court. I enjoyed the questions and discussion from the justices. You could tell that each of the justices were thoroughly prepared for all of the cases being presented that morning — there were a total of three, including our case. Each of the justices asked very specific and poignant questions, demonstrating their command of the facts and the exact legal issues before them. Of course, I also enjoyed being able to argue and advocate for our position most of all (this love of arguing is why my dad claims I became a lawyer, ha!).
So, what happens next? Well we wait. The Supreme Court can take whatever amount of time it wants to decide a case and write the legal opinion. I suspect though that we could get a decision in the next two to six months — there are other things going on at the Court besides just our case. The process by which the Justices decide the outcome of the case and which Justice will write the opinion is fascinating — if you ever get the opportunity to hear Justice Kennedy speak about the Supreme Court and the inner-workings of a Supreme Court Justice, you should take advantage of that opportunity. Of course, I want the Supreme Court to side with our position, but even if they don’t, we will continue the march forward for justice and — as always — never give up fighting for our victims and our principles.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.