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Dec. 29, 2003
Public Service Came First for Former Justice Sweeney

A former Supreme Court justice who was known for his charm and common sense approach to the law was fondly remembered today by family, colleagues and staff as the quintessential public servant.

Asher Sweeney, known to friends and family as “Ash” and to Ohio voters as A. William Sweeney, died early Sunday morning. He was 83 years old and had resided in Indian Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati, since 1962.

Raised from humble beginnings in the fields of northeast Ohio , Sweeney served his country and his state for more than 50 years, from the battlefields of Guadalcanal to the courtroom of the state's highest court.

Even after his retirement from the court in 1994 at the age of 74, Sweeney surprised some by continuing his public service, taking an appointment by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer as a commissioner for the Ohio Court of Claims helping to administer the Victims of Crime Compensation Fund.

“That was the way Dad was; his entire life was in public service,” said Sweeney's son, Randall Sweeney. “He was offered hundreds of thousands of dollars by law firms for his name to appear on their stationery, but he elected to continue his public service. Dad believed that there was a remedy for every wrong.”

Sweeney served on the Supreme Court from 1977 until 1994, when he was forced to retire because he was over the mandatory retirement age of 70. From 1985 until his retirement, Sweeney was the senior associate justice on the court, serving under four chief justices. He started under former governor C. William O'Neil, who died in 1978 and was temporarily replaced by Justice Robert E. Leach. Leach was replaced later that year by Frank D. Celebrezze, who won the election to serve out O'Neil's unexpired term. Celebrezze was defeated in 1986 by the current Chief Justice, Thomas Moyer.

“Asher Sweeney was a close associate and friend,” said Chief Justice Moyer. “His years of experience and his common sense made him a valuable member of the Supreme Court. Justice Sweeney was a strong supporter of many of the court's initiatives to improve the administration of Ohio 's courts and raise the ethical standards for lawyers and judges.”

In the early 1990s, when the General Assembly passed bills that restricted tort claims for workplace injuries, Sweeney authored two high-profile decisions, Brady v. Safety-Kleen Corp. (1991) and Sorrell v. Quality Stores (1994), in which a divided court declared several of the new laws unconstitutional. In 1994, Sweeney was part of the majority that narrowly upheld a series of controversial last-minute commutations of death sentences by then-Gov. Richard F. Celeste (State ex. rel. Maurer v. Sheward).

Sweeney was the oldest of 10 children raised on a farm in Canfield, outside of Youngstown. After high school he left the farm to pursue pre-law studies at Youngstown State University. His undergraduate education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. From 1942 to 1946, he served in the infantry in the South Pacific Theater, fighting at Guadalcanal and rising to the rank of lieutenant.

After the war, Sweeney earned a law degree from Duke University under the G.I. Bill, and he practiced law from 1949 to 1951. He continued to serve in the army reserves, and when the Korean War broke out, he was again called into combat. After two years as a combat officer with the 7th Infantry Division, Sweeney was awarded the Bronze and Silver stars.

After the war, Sweeney stayed in the military, serving as an attorney and rising to the rank of colonel before his retirement in 1968. When he left the military, Sweeney was the head of the Federal Contracting Agency in Cincinnati. President Johnson awarded him with the Legion of Merit for his outstanding leadership of that facility.

Sweeney's first campaign for public office occurred while he was still in the military, an unsuccessful bid to unseat long-time incumbent secretary of state, Republican Ted W. Brown in 1958. In 1970 and 1974, he was defeated in Democratic primaries to be his party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

Finally, he was elected to the Supreme Court in 1976, winning the Democratic nomination in a three-way primary and winning the general election with 55 percent of the vote. He was twice re-elected with 58 percent of the vote, in 1982 and 1988.

Randall Sweeney said his dad collapsed earlier this month while preparing to go to a reception in Columbus for his retirement from the Court of Claims. After 24 days at Jewish Hospital North in Cincinnati , he died early Sunday with family by his side.

Asher Sweeney's wife, Bertha died in 1998. He is survived by sons Randall, Ron and Gary and daughter Karen Cody. A private memorial service will be held at St. Paul 's Catholic Church in Salem , Ohio , at 2 p.m. Saturday Jan. 3, 2004.

Contact: Chris Davey at 614.387.9250