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C. William O'Neill

C. William O’Neill was the only Ohioan to serve in top leadership posts of all three branches of Ohio government: speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, governor of Ohio and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

O’Neill was born Feb. 14, 1916 in Marietta to Charles Thompson and Jessie Arnold O’Neill. As he explained to the Columbus Dispatch in a 1975 interview, the initial “C” stands for nothing; rather, it was a compromise between his mother, who wanted to name him Charles, and his father, who did not want a junior in the family. O’Neill graduated from Marietta College in 1938 – the same year he was elected to the House of Representatives. At age 22, O’Neill was the youngest person at the time to be elected to the House.

O’Neill received his law degree in 1942 from the Ohio State University Law School and was admitted to the Ohio bar that same year. He and his father formed the legal firm of O’Neill and O’Neill, where he practiced law from 1942 to 1950.

Due to his elected position, O’Neill was exempt from military service. However, he chose to serve and enlisted in the U.S. Army. O’Neill was re-elected to the House in 1940, 1942 and 1944 while serving in the Army. Upon his discharge in 1946, he was re-elected to the Ohio House again. From 1947 to 1948, he was speaker of the House and became minority leader in 1949.

In 1950, O’Neill was elected attorney general and, at age 34, became the youngest person elected to the office. He won re-election in 1952 and 1954.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of public schools solely for the purpose of race was unconstitutional. At the request of the State Board of Education in 1956, O’Neill issued a strongly worded legal opinion in which he wrote that the Hillsboro school district, which operated segregated schools, must conform with the law and obey the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that forbade segregation of students in public schools.

O’Neill continued to ascend the Ohio political ladder, winning election as governor in 1956. After his loss for re-election in 1958, O’Neill returned to his law practice, which had offices in Marietta and Columbus, and joined the faculty of Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va., as a distinguished professor of public affairs.

In 1960, O’Neill was presented with three opportunities to return to public service: U.S. Congress, an appointment to Justice Potter Stewart’s vacant seat on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and a seat on the Supreme Court of Ohio, which had opened upon the death of Justice James Garfield Stewart in April 1959. O’Neill chose to run for the Supreme Court and defeated Justice John W. Peck. O’Neill assumed office on Dec. 1, 1960 and was re-elected to a six-year term in 1964. He served under Chief Justices Carl V. Weygandt (1960-1962) and Kingsley A. Taft (1963-1970).

O’Neill’s majority opinion in the 4-3 decision Lonzrick v. Republic Steel Corporation of America (1966) expanded the grounds on which a company could be held liable for a defective product. In State, ex rel. Pressley v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1967), O’Neill wrote that workers can appeal to either the court of appeals or the Supreme Court a decision of the Industrial Commission of Ohio involving compensation benefits.

In March 1970, Chief Justice Taft died suddenly and Gov. James A. Rhodes appointed O’Neill to fill the unexpired term. With four years remaining on the term, O’Neill ran for election that November and won. He was then re-elected in 1974.

The nature of Ohio’s judiciary changed with the passage of the Modern Courts Amendment in 1967. This granted the Supreme Court superintendence over all the courts in the state, and authorized the Chief Justice to appoint an administrative director. Under O’Neill’s leadership, the Supreme Court adopted the Rules of Superintendence for criminal and civil dockets in 1971, which imposed time limits for disposal of cases. O’Neill was instrumental in gaining support for the reforms among the judiciary, inviting standing judges to participate in creating the rules. O’Neill also created the Superior Judicial Serviceawards, given to judges who had no cases pending beyond the prescribed time limits. In 1976, the Court established the Ohio Judicial College to provide continuing education for judges of common pleas and appeals courts, especially in the area of substantive and procedural law of Ohio.

On July 3, 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death-penalty law passed by the Ohio General Assembly in 1974, stating that it violated the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibited cruel and unusual punishment. The law set severe limits on the mitigating circumstances the Court could consider before it imposed the death penalty. The effect was that the Supreme Court reduced the death sentences of 53 prisoners to life imprisonment.

On Dec. 5, 1977, the Washington County Bar Association honored O’Neill with an honorary and lifetime membership to the association. Justices A. William Sweeney, Thomas M. Herbert, Ralph S. Locher, William Brown and Paul W. Brown attended the ceremony. In an interview with the Marietta Times, O’Neill reflected on his career. He was especially proud of how the Rules of Superintendence reduced the backlog of cases. He remarked:

“This is my best and most worthwhile contribution. I’m sure that I made my biggest contribution to the court. The time was right for reform. The old saw is ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ but what is worse, it destroys people’s confidence in the system. It costs people a lot of time and money … I enjoyed being in the legislature and being speaker of the house more than anything I did. I enjoyed being governor less than anything I did.”

O’Neill was married to Betty Hewson on July 29, 1945 and they had two children. O’Neill died Aug. 20, 1978. His funeral service was at his church, First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio. He is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta.

A portrait of O’Neill was presented to the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 1979 and is displayed in the Court’s library. A resolution memorializing O’Neill’s career was read:

“Examining the positions he held in public life gives one the feeling that the stature of this man was and is ultimately dependent neither upon the authority of his offices at the summit of each of the three coordinate branches of Ohio government not upon the gravity of the issues presented to him in these offices. Rather, his personal greatness arose from a rare ability to resolve no only the particular situation at hand, but also its overall relationship with the general good. He exerted leadership of the highest caliber and, by example, provided a standard of excellence of conduct in public office that is legacy to all Ohioans.”

William Howard Taft

b. Feb. 14, 1916

d. Aug. 20, 1978

118th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio

Jan 1, 1960
to Jan 1, 1978

See All Justices

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