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With little fanfare, lawsuit venue change legislation plows ahead

The bill, nearly identical to one vetoed last session, would allow people to challenge agencies from the county where they live
Ohio Senate session
Posted at 10:00 AM, Feb 11, 2023

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.

Last year’s version of a bill allowing residents to challenge agency orders in their home counties earned broad support in the Ohio House and Senate. It also earned a quick veto from the governor. So why does the new version seem primed to advance with little input one way or the other?

Crickets
In back-to-back hearings this week, nobody showed up to testify in support or opposition to the venue change legislation, Senate Bill 21. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce submitted written testimony in favor of the idea, citing the “unnecessary burden” on far flung businesses filing their cases in Franklin County. The chamber made similar noises last time around, too.

Speaking after a Senate Judiciary committee hearing Wednesday, even the chairman, state Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, seemed a bit surprised how quietly the bill is moving forward. Still, he said there is plenty going on behind the scenes.

“I mean, I think there’s a lot of interests, whether it’s the governor’s office or attorney general’s office, but a lot of that I think that bill sponsors are doing a good job of trying to work with them to work on amendments, and that’s what we’re kind of waiting on.”

Manning said he expects the bill to be ready for a vote next week.

The reservations
Last year, Mike Rodgers from the Attorney General’s office raised logistical concerns about the bill. Under the existing system, he said, staff attorneys travel down the street for hearings. The changes would mean covering 88 counties.

“In extreme cases, staff could be in the car for hours to reach a hearing that might last less than 30 minutes,” he explained. “Making an existing and low-cost process more expensive for Ohio taxpayers is an outcome we would prefer to avoid.”

Rodgers added they hoped lawmakers “might consider” an additional appropriation to cover the costs.

Governor Mike DeWine’s veto message for the previous version was terse and made allusions to an earlier veto. In that incident, DeWine warned that allowing challenges in all 88 counties would lead to “an avalanche of lawsuits.” Lawmakers overrode him anyway.

If past is prologue, the governor may be in for a repeat. The previous version passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers, but it came too late in the session for lawmakers to mount an override.

Late testimony
Wednesday’s hearing had just one person lined up to speak about the bill. When the committee took it up, Jeanne Ogden wasn’t in the room.

She arrived a few minutes after the committee gaveled out.

Speaking in the emptying in chamber, Ogden explained her concerns don’t have to do with the venue change provisions. Instead, she worries about language granting the governor, house speaker and senate president the right to retain private counsel and to intervene in legal matters on behalf of their office.

“If every branch of the government, the head of the Senate, the head of the House, governor can hire their very own attorney and not go through the Attorney General’s office, it throws a lot of confusion into who’s representing the state,” she said.

She wondered aloud what the changes would mean if Republicans someday didn’t dominate Ohio politics. Would it allow one party to make an end run around an attorney general or a governor of the other party? She pointed to Michigan as an example. Fearing a future Democratic administration wouldn’t defend their legislative wins in court, GOP lawmakers advanced similar legislation in 2018.

Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, vetoed the bill.

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