John Waterman Okey
b. Jan. 3, 1827
d. 1885
55th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Term
Feb. 9, 1878
to July 25, 1885

JOHN WATERMAN OKEY

John Waterman Okey’s legal career included 36 years in private practice and service on the Monroe County courts and the Supreme Court of Ohio. Okey’s contemporaries and subsequent legal scholars also knew him for his editorial work in the Digest of Ohio Reports and the Municipal Code, as well as his tenure on the commission formed to revise and draft the Revised Statutes of Ohio.

Okey was born in Woodsfield, Ohio on Jan. 3, 1827 to Col. Cornelius Okey and Hannah Weir Okey. Okey was tutored privately and educated in Center Township schools before entering Monroe Academy in Woodsfield. After graduating from the academy, Okey was employed as a deputy clerk in the Monroe County Clerk of Courts office for two years. He left the clerk’s office to read law with local attorney Nathan Hollister. He was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1849 and began a private law practice in Woodsfield.

Okey’s judicial career began when Gov. William Medill appointed him judge of the Monroe County Probate Court on Oct. 18, 1853. The following year, Monroe County voters elected him to a full term on the court. In 1856, Okey campaigned successfully as a Democrat for election to the common pleas court for the district that included Belmont County. He was re-elected without opposition in 1861.

Okey resigned from his judgeship in 1865, moved to Cincinnati and joined Judge William Y. Gholson in the practice of law and took on the task of compiling the Digest of Ohio Reports, which were published in 1867. In 1869, Okey and S.A. Miller joined to publish the Municipal Code, an assemblage of Ohio’s general and local laws that applied to municipalities. Gov. William Allen recognized Okey’s interest in compiling Ohio laws and appointed him to the Commission to Revise and Consolidate the General Statutes of Ohio in 1875, where he joined M.A. Daugherty and Judge Luther Day. The commission’s work of drafting a codification and comprehensive revision of Ohio laws took four years to complete and represented the most thorough overhaul of Ohio laws since they were first compiled in 1805. The Ohio General Assembly accepted the commission’s work, called Revised Statutes of Ohio, and ordered its publication in 1879. The Revised Statutes of Ohio remained in effect for 31 years until its replacement by the Ohio General Code in 1910.

While working on the commission, Okey was nominated by the Ohio Democratic Party to run for the Supreme Court of Ohio in 1877. He was re-elected to his second term in 1882. In 1882, Okey served as chief judge. During his tenure, Okey drafted 170 written opinions, now found in volumes 34 through 43 of Ohio State Reports. Nine opinions were cited by other courts numerous times and were still cited by Ohio and other state courts in the 20th century.

Okey’s drafted opinions represent brief and concise statements of legal principles, similar to those drafted by his fellow judges. They differ, however, in four respects: Okey’s opinions often spoke to issues of statutory interpretation, more than likely due to his extensive knowledge of Ohio statutes gained from his work in compiling digests of Ohio laws. Secondly, Okey’s opinions showed a familiarity with case law of other courts because he often referred to precedents from U.S. federal courts, other American state courts and English common law. Thirdly, his opinions embodied the style of writing of contemporary judges from other states and served as a model for Ohio’s judges and Justices who sought to bring Ohio’s written opinions into harmony with other states. Finally, Okey’s opinions provided his explanation of the Ohio statutes or case law impacted by the case before the Supreme Court. Okey recognized the value of the text of his written opinion was its ability to persuade since the opinion’s syllabus stated the Court’s decision.

Although Okey was ill during the summer of 1885, his death on July 25, 1885 came as a shock to his contemporaries. A memorial service was conducted by the Franklin County Bar Association in Columbus on July 25 before Okey’s remains were transported to Cincinnati for burial at Spring Grove Cemetery.

Okey married Mary J. Bloor in Woodsfield in 1849 and the couple raised two sons and two daughters. George B. Okey, their first child, joined his father in the practice of law following his graduation from the Cincinnati Law School and his admission to the Ohio bar in 1871. George annotated the Ohio Constitution for the 1873 constitutional convention and, in 1877, he replaced his father on the Commission to Revise and Consolidate the General Statutes of Ohio. In 1885, George Okey was appointed reporter for the Supreme Court, editing volumes 43 through 45 of Ohio State Reports. In 1890, he was an unsuccessful Democratic Party candidate for a seat on the Supreme Court.