Ohio Northern University hosted Justice Michael P. Donnelly of the Ohio Supreme Court for an enlightening and engaging open Q&A session with students on September 28, 2023. Justice Donnelly, who took office as the 160th Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court in January 2019 after being elected in November 2018, offered insight into his path to the Supreme Court and shared his perspectives on various legal and societal issues.
His Path to the Supreme Court
Justice Donnelly said that he did not foresee sitting on the highest Court in Ohio when he was a child. Originally, he harbored aspirations of a career in music, either as a performer or working alongside artists on the business side of the music industry. Judicial duties have not quite squashed those young dreams yet, as he currently plays guitar in a band called “Faith and Whiskey,” noting that “if you don’t have one, then you better have the other.”
He credited the movie “A Few Good Men” and his father’s career as a judge as influential factors that propelled him towards law school. Justice Donelly continued to use movie references as a rhetorical device, also mentioning “Moneyball” and “12 Angry Men” alongside “A Few Good Men” to help explain certain topics that are a bit more opaque to general audiences.
Justice Donnelly began his legal career as an assistant prosecutor in Cleveland, where he worked alongside mentors who instilled in him the importance of transparency and fairness in the legal process. He noted that these mentors who would take the extra steps to make the process fair were the exception, not the norm. After taking notice of one particular area of opacity, the plea bargaining negotiations that take place before trial, he decided things needed to change. He advocated for on-record discussions and increased transparency, emphasizing that nothing off the record should be said that wouldn’t be spoken on the record.
His decision to run for the Ohio Supreme Court was solidified by the rejection of the Truth in Sentencing Initiative by the same court. This initiative was a policy proposal that aimed to reform how sentencing functions in Ohio criminal courts. Justice Donelly cites disparities in sentencing across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines, and believes that lowering the amount of discretion judges have when determining how long someone will be in jail (or how much they pay in fines) will equalize that disparity.
During the Q&A session, Justice Donnelly addressed several important topics raised by the students:
Fighting Wrongful Convictions: Justice Donelly discussed the Wrongful Conviction Task Force, outlining a new rule that mandates trial judges to hold a hearing if new evidence potentially exonerating a defendant comes to light, with a strict 90-day timeline for a ruling.
Transparency in Decision-Making: He stressed the importance of transparency when individuals, including academics, are involved in policymaking, believing that reasons for decisions should be openly shared.
Influence on Accountability: Justice Donelly expressed concern when the rule of law is not followed, alleging a detrimental impact on society.
Citizens United: He criticized the Citizens United decision–which prevented the government from instituting restrictions on campaign finances–and called for a constitutional amendment to overturn it, attributing a significant portion of political polarization to this ruling.
AI in Law: Justice Donelly acknowledged that Artificial Intelligence, such as ChatGPT, will impact the legal landscape and mentioned that within five years. It will significantly change how the legal system operates, particularly in areas like managing sentencing data.
Value of Pro Bono Work: He highlighted the significance of pro bono–”For good,” or free–work as an opportunity for attorneys to bridge the justice gap between those who can and cannot afford legal representation.
Justice Michael P. Donelly’s visit to Ohio Northern University provided students with valuable insights into the legal system, his personal journey, and the critical issues facing the judicial branch of government in Ohio. The event was organized by ONU student Carson Babbit and his peers in College Democrats. After the event, Carson noted that he was “really happy” with the turnout, and “happy for the enthusiasm” shown by the “packed room” for “getting state officials [to the school].” The event was not political in nature and was attended by students of multiple political persuasions.