Today is the 10-year anniversary of the Zelman v Simmons-Harris landmark case. On June 27, 2002, Judge Judi French argued the Zelman case before the US Supreme Court. Here she shares her memories from the case and the meaning the case still holds for her today.
I don’t think I could adequately convey how much it meant to me (still means to me) to be involved in the Zelman case. When I first learned that I would be the lead attorney for the State of Ohio, I approached it as a case, that is, an important legal question that needed answering. At that point, the legal challenges had resulted in mixed rulings with no clear winner. We needed the Supreme Court to step in and clarify the issues, and the Ohio case cued up as the one the court would hear. But as the case progressed, I began to realize that I was part of much more than just a case. I was part of a movement that mattered to many, many people, and that could impact many more.
I was surrounded by a terrific team, thanks to the commitment of Attorney General Betty Montgomery. She made sure we had the resources we needed to be successful, including Ken Starr and Rob Gasaway of Kirkland & Ellis in Washington to act as our co-counsel. The lawyers who preceded us had made sure that the record was stuffed with evidence about the value of the voucher program and its purposes. We inherited a great case from them.
I loved the legal question at the core of the case — whether Ohio’s voucher program violated constitutional provisions that prohibit a state from making a law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Admittedly, I often felt like the eyes of the world (the education world, at least) were on me and the rest of the team, but it was that great legal question that kept us focused. Also important was the ability of Betty, and others, to deflect the pressure the State was under to handle the case just right and win the appeal. Despite this pressure, Betty gave me nothing but encouragement and confidence.
Here is something that might surprise you…in preparing for the oral argument, I relied on music and visualization to keep centered. I listened repeatedly to the soundtrack of “Gladiator,” with its Hans Zimmer score, and visualized each step of that important day–getting to the court, going through security, riding the elevator upstairs, waiting for the arguments to begin, beginning my argument, and so on. The powerful music calmed me and even slowed my heart rate. I wanted to feel that I had been through each step before, and I even asked my 11-year-old daughter, Julia, to play the part of Chief Justice Rehnquist to call me to the podium and begin my argument. (She would look serious and say in a deep voice, “Miss French, we’ll hear from you now.”) It worked. In those moments (really, just a few seconds) when I stood at the podium waiting for the nod from Chief Justice Rehnquist before I could begin–that moment I knew could cause so much anxiety–I felt that I had been there a thousand times before, at least in my mind.
It was several years before I listened to a recording of the oral argument, and when I did, I cried. Not because I had performed brilliantly (I thought I spoke too fast and used the word “absolutely” way too much), but because I had been part of something so meaningful and fulfilling.
On June 27, 2012, I will remember what it was like on June 27, 2002, to learn that we had won the case — we had lawyers stationed at the court to receive the opinion, who then relayed the information by phone. I received so many congratulatory calls that day, but none was more satisfying than the phone call from voucher parents and kids. Yes, I was proud of what I had done and thrilled with the outcome, but I was even happier for them and what the decision meant for their future.