In the summer of 1998, Matthew M. Nee arrived at the Supreme Court of Ohio. He was a second-year law student at Ohio Northern University College of Law, and the law school faculty had selected Matt to serve as an extern to a Supreme Court justice.
Matt couldn’t have known it at the time, but he had won a sort of lottery by being assigned to the office of Justice Paul E. Pfeifer. Serving as an extern to a Supreme Court justice is a wonderful opportunity for any law student, but getting to work for Justice Pfeifer would do more than enhance Matt’s resume.
Justice Pfeifer was first elected to the Court in 1992. When Matt started his externship, Pfeifer was in the final year of his first six-year term. By the time Pfeifer retired in December 2016, his 24 years on the bench would rank him as one of the longest-serving Supreme Court justices in Ohio’s history.
It would be difficult for a law student to find better circumstances in which to cut his legal teeth than by working for Justice Pfeifer. During his judicial career, Pfeifer was widely recognized for his unwavering independence, his insight to the critical elements of cases, and most especially for writing opinions that were saluted for their clarity, wit, and sound legal reasoning.
Over the long arc of his career, Pfeifer remained consistent on many issues. He always sought to protect the sanctity of the constitutional right to a jury trial. He staunchly opposed a limit on damages for civil trials, believing that the Ohio Constitution was clear on that matter. He maintained a constant war against the doctrine of sovereign immunity. He was never in favor of stare decisis – the doctrine of precedent which contends that courts must follow earlier judicial decisions. And the overriding theme that shone most brightly in his opinions and dissents was his deep affection for the adaptability and wisdom of the common law.
But it wasn’t just Pfeifer’s judicial reputation that made an externship in his office so valuable. While Pfeifer took the job of being a justice seriously, he never took himself too seriously. Despite all his career achievements – a prosperous private law practice, 16 years in the Ohio Senate, 24 years on the Supreme Court – the trappings of the office he held never affected him. Perhaps it was because of his small-town roots – he grew up in Bucyrus, the son of a dairy farmer. Or maybe it was because he never stopped being a farmer himself – for years he’s maintained about 200 head of Black Angus cattle on his own farm in Bucyrus. (Pfeifer always said that no matter what people thought of him as a justice, the cows just knew him as the guy who brought the hay.) For whatever the reason, the important thing is Pfeifer never lost the “common touch.” And that was a lesson he imparted to all of us who worked for him – not by preaching it, but rather by example.
Matt absorbed that lesson. He came to the Court looking to get class credit and a nice addition to his resume. He would end up getting that and quite a bit more than he imagined.