Ohio Issue 1: Supreme Court Commissions? Courts of Conciliation? Thank (or blame) New York…

While much of the focus regarding Issue 1 has been on the proposed change to the judicial retirement age, Ohio voters will decide on the outright repeal of two sections of the state constitution’s Article 6. Both sections can be traced back to New York’s 1846 constitution.

Courts of Conciliation

Ohio Constitution (1851) Article 6, Section 19

The General Assembly may establish courts of conciliation, and prescribe their powers and duties; but such courts shall not render final judgment in any case, except upon submission, by the parties, of the matter in dispute, and their agreement to abide such judgment.

New York Constitution (1846) Article 6, Section 23

Tribunals of conciliation may be established, with such powers and duties as may be prescribed by law; but such tribunals shall have no power to render judgment to be obligatory on the parties, except they voluntarily submit their matters in difference, and agree to abide the judgment, or assent thereto, in the presence of such tribunal, in such cases as shall be prescribed by law.

Provisions for tribunals of conciliation or courts of conciliation can be found in the 1800s constitutions of not only Ohio (1851), but Wisconsin (1848), California (1849), Michigan (1850), Indiana (1851), and North Dakota (1889). They are all taken, almost verbatim, from the 1846 New York Constitution, which for its time was considered revolutionary in terms of judicial proceedings (and also was the genesis for the appellate commissions discussed below).

Courts of conciliation were akin to small claims courts (Minnesota’s small claims courts are still called “conciliation courts”) and arbitration or mediation (statutes in Arizona, California, Montana, and Nebraska reference conciliation courts that focus to amicably resolve martial and domestic relations issues). The report of the debates of the 1851 Ohio Constitutional convention note the intent behind these courts:

This plan of a court of conciliation has many advocates, who desire to see it established. It has been tried in other countries, with excellent effect—greatly diminish litigation and subduing a litigious spirit—a spirit which is the bane of a community. It sets neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother and even father against son, and son against father. Such litigation have I often witnessed, and in some cases seen it prosecuted with an embittered spirit, little short of devilish. Every means which promises only a mitigation if the evil should be employed. The expense and time wasted in such controversies, employing judges, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and suitors, is but a little of the mischief. The monstrous evil consists in the engendering and perpetuating of strife and contention among neighbors, begetting and nursing discord and hatred in families, and in disturbing the harmony and peace of society. A judicious peace loving and peace making officer of this kind may be more useful, far more useful than the first judge of your State, whom you propose to dignify with title of Chief Justice of Ohio.

It should be noted that despite the above ringing endorsement, the provision almost never happened. According to the reports of the debates at the 1851 Ohio Constitutional Convention, the vote to put in the provision was adopted 42-39.

All references to such courts can trace back (constitutionally speaking) to similar courts in Denmark and Norway, the “other countries” alluded to above. Although intended as separate and independent from regular courts, most courts of conciliation instead became divisions of existing courts. For example, a 1909 report indicates Cleveland’s Municipal Court had a Conciliation Division.

According to a history of the New York Constitution, the courts were seldom used because existing laws, with respect to arbitration, were already in place and accessible. In New York, it wasn’t until 1862 that an actual  tribunal of conciliation was set up in a judicial district. The statute authorizing the court was repealed 3 years later. As the Ohio Legislative Service Commission’s review of Measure 1 (then called HJR 1) indicates, Ohio too opted to put in mediation/conciliation practices rather than create free-standing courts.

Supreme Court Commissions

Ohio Constitution (1875) Article 6, Section 22

A commission, which shall consist of five members, shall be appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the senate, the members of which shall hold office for the term of three years from and after the first day of February, 1876, to dispose of such part of the business then on the dockets of the supreme court, as shall, by arrangement between said commission and said court, be transferred to such commission; and said commission shall have like jurisdiction and power in respect to such business as are or may be vested in said court; and the members of said commission shall receive a like compensation for the time being, with the judges of said court. A majority of the members of said commission shall be necessary to form a quorum or pronounce a decision, and its decision shall be certified, entered, and enforced as the judgments of the supreme court, and at the expiration of the term of said commission, all business undisposed of shall by it be certified to the supreme court and disposed of as if said commission had never existed. The clerk and reporter of said court shall be the clerk and reporter of said commission, and the commission shall have such other attendants not exceeding in number those provided by law for said court, which attendants said commission may appoint and remove at its pleasure. Any vacancy occurring in said commission, shall be filled by appointment of the governor, with the advice and consent of the senate, if the senate be in session, and if the senate be not in session, by the governor, but in such last case, such appointment shall expire at the end of the next session of the general assembly. The general assembly may, on application of the supreme court duly entered on the journal of the court and certified, provide by law, whenever two-thirds of such [each] house shall concur therein, from time to time, for the appointment, in like manner, of a like commission with like powers, jurisdiction and duties; provided, that the term of any such commission shall not exceed two years, nor shall it be created oftener than once in ten years.

New York Constitution (1869) Article 6, Section 4 & 5

Sec. 4 Upon the organization of the [new] Court of Appeals [New York’s top court], under this article, the causes then pending in the present Court of Appeals shall become vested in the Court of Appeals hereby established. Such of said causes as are pending on the first day of January, eighteen hundred and sixty-nine, shall be heard and determined by a Commission, to be composed of five Commissioners of Appeals, four of whom shall be necessary to constitute a quorum; but the Court of Appeals hereby established may order any of said causes to be heard therein. Such Commission shall be composed of the Judges of the present Court of Appeals, elected or appointed thereto, and a fifth Commissioner who shall be appointed by the Governor, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate; or, if the Senate be not in session, by the Governor; but in such case, the appointment shall expire at the end of the next session.

Sec. 5 If any vacancy shall occur in the office of the said Commissioners, it shall be filled by appointment by the Governor by and with the advice and consent of the Senate; or if the Senate is not in session, by the Governor; but in such case, the appointment shall expire at the end of the next session. The Commissioners shall appoint, from their number, a Chief Commissioner; and may appoint and remove such attendants as may be necessary. The reporter of the Court of Appeals shall be the reporter of said Commission. The decisions of the Commission shall be certified to, and entered and enforced, as the judgments of the Court of Appeals. The Commission shall continue until the causes committed to it are determined, but not exceeding three years; and all causes then undetermined shall be heard by the Court of Appeals.

We take for granted the system in place in 40 states of an intermediate appellate court (usually called the Court of Appeals), however the creation of these courts met with fierce resistance both from voters and, on occasion, state supreme courts. Consider, for example, that Nevada voters have three times in the last three decades rejected the creation of such a court, most recently in 2010 (a fourth attempt may be made in 2014). When Colorado’s legislature made an attempt to create such a court in 1886, the state’s supreme court issued an advisory opinion that the proposed Court of Appeal was an unconstitutional infringement on the Supreme Court’s role as the supreme court of the state (the Supreme Court upheld a different version of the Court of Appeals in 1891).

Ohio and other large states like Texas tried to grapple with this problem through the use of appellate commissions. The appointment of special judicial officers to hear certain motions or matters was, and is, not uncommon. To this day subordinate judicial officers in California trial courts are called “commissioners“.

What made the New York, Ohio, and Texas provisions unique was that they provided for panels of commissioners to sit and render judgments. This avoided the exceptionally untenable situation of creating an intermediate appellate court or adding judges to existing courts which, as noted, had no real political support. The commission idea, however, got the votes in 1869 as part of a massive overhaul of New York’s judiciary article. The provisions appear to have been for the most part duplicated in Ohio (1875) and Texas (1879 by statute) a few years later.

Eventually these commissions fell out of favor for two reasons. First, states large and small simply needed dedicated, permanent intermediate appellate courts to handle the caseload. Second, there was a very real possibility that decisions of the commissions would be in conflict with the courts.

New York got such a dedicated court (the Appellate Divisions) in its 1894 constitution. Ohio got Circuit Courts of Appeals in 1851 consisting of 1 Supreme Court Justice riding circuit and sitting with the judges of the courts of common pleas, but it was not until an 1883 amendment that the Circuit Courts of Appeals consisted of judges specifically elected to serve in those courts. These eventually were made into the modern District Courts of Appeals.

What appellate commissioners remain today (such as in Oregon) are hearing officers who handle motion practice, not panels. Perhaps the only remaining vestiges of the old system are in Ohio’s constitution and North Dakota’s “Court of Appeals” which, despite the name, functions much the same as the commissions did, with panels coming into existence or only being used when the state’s top court is overwhelmed.


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