Sunday, September 19, 2004

He calls 'em as he sees 'em

Maverick Justice Pfeifer unabashed on rulings

By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - On a recent spring afternoon, hundreds of students, teachers and education advocates gathered on the Statehouse lawn for another protest of the state's unconstitutional school funding system.

One gentleman handed out brown business cards from Ohioans for Educational Justice. It listed the group's endorsed Supreme Court candidates.

Three first three names - Democrat, Democrat, Democrat - offered no surprises.

Then there was a fourth name: Justice Paul Pfeifer.

"I'm far from embarrassed by (that)," said Pfeifer, a Republican from Crawford County, when told of the card. "I'm happy about it."

Pfeifer has been endorsed by labor unions and scorned by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, a traditional cornerstone of Republican support. His votes to strike down school funding, lawsuit reform, and workers compensation reform have angered GOP-controlled legislatures and frustrated two Republican governors.

And while some in his own party's leadership voted against endorsing him, no Republicans stepped up to challenge Pfeifer, 61. This year Democrats didn't even bother to field a candidate, meaning that of the four high-court seats up for election, only Pfeifer is unopposed.

Democrats don't agree with him a majority of the time, said Dan Trevas, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party. But they like him well enough.

"On key issues that have been important to a majority of Ohioans interested in the court, Justice Pfeifer takes sides on the issues we agree on," he said.

While he may not be his party's favorite Republican, Pfeifer says he still gets warm receptions at picnics and other GOP events around the state. And you won't hear him apologize for his rulings.

"In this job, we're supposed to call 'em like we see 'em," he said. "My job is to be as fair and impartial and independent as possible."

Running unopposed means Pfeifer will avoid debate over the top issue in these Supreme Court races: tort reform. The legislature has already passed jury award limits on medical malpractice and asbestos cases, and is preparing broader reforms later this year.

The medical community and business leaders are pushing hard for a court that will uphold these new laws, while trial lawyers want them struck down as unconstitutional.

Pfeifer, who in 1999 ruled that caps on jury awards were unconstitutional, says the national tort reform effort is the work of some "exceedingly wealthy and powerful folks in New York and Washington D.C."

"Any system that handles injury and accident claims is not perfect," he said. "But this is hardly a nuanced approach. It's a meat cleaver."



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