Honoring Justice Moyer

The flags flew at half-staff in Columbus today to honor Thomas Moyer, who died recently in the final months of his final term, after 23 years as chief justice (see Gavel Grab). The line of mourners spilled out of the Ohio Judicial Center on to the sidewalk, waiting in the cold—38 degrees and gusty—to pay their respects.

Inside the courtroom, a black robe was draped over the chief justice’s chair. Moyer’s wife and family received visitors as the other justices stood nearby. A modest casket, swathed with an Ohio flag, sat up front, just past the railing.

I had come out of admiration and fondness. Justice Moyer was a founding member of Justice at Stake’s board of directors. He relished working for fair courts (“it was his passion,” one judge told me in line). Despite his high perch, Justice Moyer tended to board matters large and small, sending the occasional ‘Thank you’ or ‘Good job’ that showed that yes, he was reading all those e-mails.

At board meetings and national events, Justice Moyer’s was typically the gentlest voice in the room. He never wanted to pull rank, and never needed to. “When I was growing up,” his son Drew told me today, “the lesson he taught was that no matter how famous you are, you only put on your pants one leg at a time.”

Indeed, what struck me was how a variety of people from the legal world—magistrates, specialty court officials, attorneys from the solicitor general’s office—told me the same story. Each was surprised and gratified at how a chief justice could be so conscientious and attentive to his or her issues.

Justice Moyer’s long labors included efforts to reform how judges are selected. He worried deeply about how partisanship and interest group politics are swirling around America’s courts. He put the Ohio Supreme Court on TV and the internet, and took it to high schools around the state.

The courthouse where he lay in state today houses yet another of his legacies: the Visitor Education Center, an award-winning force for education with few rivals. Visitors learn about the work of courts by deciding controversial cases themselves. Students can step onto an interactive scale and literally feel how checks and balances work. Videos tell about cases involving fugitive slaves and bibles in the classroom, and bust TV-age myths about the courts.

Education, accreting hour by hour, fortifies civic society.  That’s why it’s so apt that the courthouse that Justice Moyer loved and helped rebuild might be renamed in his honor. Decency also accumulates, over a lifetime and into the lives of those with whom it is shared. It deserves its own celebration.

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