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Analysis: Don't mistake Joe Deters' appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court as a 'retirement job'

Joe Deters
John Minchillo
/
AP
A rare photo of a smiling Deters, who is often pictured otherwise given the nature of his job as prosecutor.

When Joe Deters, after 40 years in politics and law enforcement, dons the robes of an Ohio Supreme Court justice in a few days, some will assume he is taking a retirement job.

A way to pad the 65-year-old public employee's retirement fund while doing no heavy lifting on a deliberative body that seems somewhat insulated from the real world of politics.

They might want to think again.

Deters was appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine to the vacancy caused by Justice Sharon Kennedy's election as chief justice at a time when that court is smack dab in the middle of some of the most contentious issues in Ohio — issues like the impasse over legislative redistricting and the pending case challenging Ohio's "heartbeat" legislation limiting abortion.

Ohio Republicans wanted a known quantity, a person with conservative street cred, who is likely to vote their way on hot-button issues that come before the court, where they have a 4-3 majority.

And what they got in Deters is someone who comes from a quarter century of prosecuting criminals — a justice who, unlike his six colleagues, has never served a day as a judge.

He's been in a courtroom, but at the prosecution table, not the bench.

"Joe may have more courtroom experience than any supreme court justice in our memory," said Mark R. Weaver, a lawyer and Republican campaign consultant who has helped Deters in his election campaigns.

"This is what sets him apart from the rest of the judges, both the Republicans and the Democrats," Weaver said.

Deters did not return phone messages to talk about his new job.

He's always been accessible to the media in his years as prosecutor, but that may change now that he is to be Justice Joseph T. Deters. Supreme Court justices do most of their talking in legal opinions.

Deters is 'a very partisan figure'

Deters was the driving force behind Issue 1, the state constitutional amendment which will require judges to consider public safety when setting bail for criminals and removes the Ohio Supreme Court's role in setting bail procedures.

Issue 1 passed with 78% of the vote in the November 2022 election.

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law and a former Democratic mayor of the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, said he isn't concerned about Deters' lack of experience as judge. But he has other questions about what kind of justice Deters will be.

"I think that's OK, not having judicial experience," Hoffmeister said. "I do think you need to demonstrate some neutrality though. Joe Deters has been a very partisan figure; everybody knows where he stands."

joe deters
John Minchillo
/
AP

Hoffmeister said he was somewhat surprised by the appointment of Deters, regardless of Deters' close relationship with DeWine. And he said he was "somewhat surprised" that Deters accepted the appointment.

"Maybe (Deters) sees it as getting out while the getting is good," Hoffmeister said. "The Democrats were going to come gunning for him in 2024. And that's a presidential year. In a county that has become very blue."

It's hard to say. Deters would certainly not want to go out a loser, particularly after a 40-year career in politics.

'There's no fear in Joe'

Politics has been in his DNA since the start.

Deters' grandfather, Dan Tehan, was a Democrat and served as Hamilton County's elected sheriff from 1948 through 1972. It was a time when Democrats simply didn't get elected to office in Hamilton County — except for Dan Tehan.

His grandson was able to replicate that kind of popularity as a Republican.

In 1982, Deters went straight from the UC College of Law into the Hamilton County prosecutor's office to work as an assistant prosecutor.

The Republican Party establishment in Hamilton County knew they had a rising star in the 25-year-old assistant prosecutor, someone who could have a long and successful career in politics.

In 1988, he was elected clerk of courts. Four years later, Deters replaced Art Ney as prosecutor when Ney became a judge.

In GOP circles, party leaders saw in Deters a young, attractive candidate for statewide office, one with an impressive resume and a reputation as a hard-nosed crime-fighting prosecutor.

He seemed to be on a track to become governor some day. The sky was the limit.

In 1998, Deters ran for state treasurer and won. The Ohio GOP was developing a deep bench of potential gubernatorial candidates, and Treasurer Deters was definitely in the mix.

Then, in 2002, Deters' prospects for moving up the ladder began crashing down.

He was one of the targets of a grand jury investigation in Cuyahoga County into potential campaign finance pay-to-play charges.

At the time, Deters called the investigation "despicable and political."

He was never charged or even implicated in any crimes himself, but two former staff members ended up entering guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges. They had been found to have served as the middle-men between campaign contributions and favorable treatment from the treasurer's office.

There was no evidence that Deters was personally involved, but he knew that the scandal in his office meant no advancement to attorney general or governor or anything else in state government.

Fortunately for Deters, an entirely different scandal back home gave him a door marked exit.

Mike Allen was Hamilton County prosecutor after Deters was elected treasurer. Allen too was being talked about as a potential GOP statewide candidate, but that possibility crashed and burned when, in 2004, it became public knowledge that Allen, whose then-wife was a judge, was having an affair with a young lawyer in his office.

Allen was forced to resign in disgrace, not long before the 2004 election. He had been a candidate for re-election, but withdrew as a candidate.

At that point, the Republican Party had no candidate for prosecutor and the Democratic Party had not fielded one.

Joe Deters to the rescue.

Deters resigned as treasurer and returned to Hamilton County to run for his old job as prosecutor. But it was too late to get on the ballot. So, he filed as a write-in candidate.

So, too, did a Democrat, lawyer Fanon Rucker. Two write-in candidates going head-to-head for an important county office. It was unusual, to say the least.

Deters prevailed in the write-in contest and has been re-elected as prosecutor every four years since.

In his years as prosecutor, Deters has handled the courtroom work on a number of high profile cases.

And, in one very tough case, he angered most of the law enforcement community deciding to prosecute former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who, in 2015, shot and killed an unarmed man, Samuel DuBose, during a traffic stop.

Cincinatti Tensing Shooting
Liz Dufour/AP
/
The Cincinnati Enquirer Pool
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, left, and Assistant Prosecutors Mark Piepmeier and Rick Gibson, listen to an argument in the trial of Ray Tensing, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.

Another case of a white police officer killing an unarmed Black man. It enraged many in Cincinnati's Black community at a time when the city was still struggling to turn around decades of toxic community-police relations.

Deters decided to prosecute Tensing, and the Queen City Lodge of the FOP lashed out at the prosecutor with a "no confidence" vote of its members.

After a mistrial and a hung jury, Deters realized a conviction was next to impossible and dropped the prosecution.

The fact that he even tried, though, spoke volumes about Deters.

"He's never been afraid to take on high profile cases," Weaver said. "There's no fear in Joe."

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Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.