One for the ages: OSBA elder statesman Bill Weisenberg “retires”

​​​​​​​​By John Hocter
 
There are 45 years of legal history packed up in boxes in Bill Weisenberg’s office.
 
Thirty-six boxes to be exact, stacked in towers three and four high among piles of plaques and dusty awards earned over four different decades. The Civil Rights Movement, countless Supreme Court decisions, eight gubernatorial administrations, six Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justices—they’re all here in this room, enough memories to fill a lifetime lived in service to the law. Bill leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. “So what do you want to know?”

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William Kolker Weisenberg’s path to the law began as a young boy in a humble apartment building in 1950s New York City. Two of his neighbors, Abraham Geller and Arthur Klein, were New York State Supreme Court Justices, both of whom were happy to discuss their cases and careers with the eager young student. These conversations would spark in Bill an early passion for government, the justice system and, particularly, the Constitution. His desire to learn more eventually led him to enroll in a course called Problems of Democracy as a high school junior, a class that would have a lasting impact, significantly influencing Bill’s outlook on life and the law. “We read John Locke, Rousseau, The Federalist Papers, de Tocqueville, Machiavelli’s The Prince ... that’s where my interest in government and civic education really began. After that I don’t think there was ever a doubt in my mind that I would end up going to law school.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Syracuse University, Bill did just that, arriving at New York Law School in 1966 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was there that he took on a challenge that would further cement his belief in the law as a necessary means to justice for the general populace: a job with the New York Legal Aid Society. “I really believed helping others was what the law was about,” he remembers. “To me it was a form of public service, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.” He gained valuable experience counseling low-income clients who otherwise could not afford legal services, representing them in court for various civil matters and administrative hearings, and discovered that the classes he attended in law school became more concrete when coupled with the real-world experience of practicing law. “I think it really helped me as a law student to bring together the academic side of my legal education and the practical application of what I had learned,” he says. “You’re representing people and serving as an advocate for preserving and perpetuating the Rule of Law in society. That really put a focus on my entire life.”

Bill finished law school, passed the bar exam and immediately entered into public service, moving from New York to Columbus in 1969 to take a job with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He worked with various government departments and entities over the next eight years, including the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Ohio Youth Commission, before being hired as chief counsel to the Ohio House of Representatives House Judiciary Committee in March 1977. With this new position, Bill went to work each day at a place that embodied the civic ideals he had formed early in his life, the epicenter of state government, legislative affairs and the Rule of Law—the Ohio Statehouse.

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We’re on our way to a public hearing of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, and we’re 20 minutes late. As we hurry through the rows of cars in the parking garage toward the entrance of the Statehouse, I ask Bill what it’s like for him to walk through these doors yet again. “You know, I’ve been coming here for 43 years,” he says with a smile. “This is a very special place for me.”

The security guard manning the entrance greets him like an old friend as we hurry past, and Bill returns the favor. He has an intimate knowledge of this place, and we zigzag through stairways and dimly lit corridors before emerging into a principal walkway in the Statehouse basement. Once on the elevator, I ask again about our reason for coming. “We’re just observers today,” he says. “I’m extremely interested in the work of this commission.” Tasked with reviewing Ohio’s Constitution and recommending changes to better reflect modern-day society, the commission is carrying out a process undertaken periodically by the state’s government since the Constitution’s adoption more than 200 years ago. With Bill’s reverence and respect for what the document means and its critical importance to our society, it is not hard to pinpoint the reasons for his heightened interest in the commission’s work.

“Better late than never, Bill,” jokes a man waiting for the elevator as the doors open. “Good to see you, Ron,” Bill offers over his shoulder without breaking stride as we hasten down another narrow
hallway. “That’s Ron Amstutz, chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee,” he informs me. “Elected to office in 1980.”

The sounds of enthusiastic voices already echo from behind the door as we arrive outside the hearing room. Entering quietly, Bill motions for me to sit beside him in the back row. Today the com¬mission’s discussion revolves around the political nature of judicial elections and the prospect of potential merit selection for Ohio Supreme Court judges, and the debate is spirited. At a critical juncture, Professor Richard Saphire of the University of Dayton Law School asks the commission if anyone can remember the last time a state implemented a system of merit selection for appointing judges, but no one seems to know. “Luckily, we have our resident legal historian Mr. Weisenberg here with us today,” says commission member and former OSBA President Pat Fischer. He signals toward the back of the room. 

“Bill?”

He obliges instantly. “Rhode Island, 1994.”

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On a sunny spring afternoon at the OSBA, Bill and the rest of the staff sit in a routine monthly meeting discussing a recent update to internal computer servers, including a required purge of archived email messages dating back many years. “I finally deleted all those emails from Calvin Coolidge,” Bill quips, drawing laughter from the more than 50 full-time OSBA employees.

With 35 years of service to the Association under his belt, including a cherry tree planted in his honor just steps from the front entrance, Bill is without question the elder statesman of the OSBA, an organization he describes as sometimes being an “island of reason in a sea of insanity.” But while his office resides within the walls of the OSBA, he never truly left the Statehouse, where he has continued to advocate for the lawyers of Ohio and their clients throughout his tenure with the Association.

Soon after being hired as the OSBA Director of Government Affairs in 1979, one of his first actions was to spearhead the fight to change state law to adopt the doctrine of comparative negligence, allowing victims embroiled in personal injury cases to be compensated fairly and adequately. In the 1980s, he and the OSBA helped defeat a proposed sales tax on legal services, which he characterizes as “a tax on the public for using the essential services of a lawyer.” That decade also saw a successful legislative battle to prevent the hostile takeover of Ohio corporations. In the ‘90s he worked to pass legislation regarding advanced directives, giving Ohio citizens with terminal illnesses the right to make important choices about life-sustaining treatment, living wills, powers of attorney and other important legal matters. He was also instrumental in major legislation that preserved the legal standard of “the best interest of the child” in domestic relations cases, a standard that remains in place to this day.

Despite his pivotal roles in these and many other legislative efforts over the years, whether out in front of an issue or behind the scenes, he is quick to pass along the credit to those he considers to be the real difference-makers. “I think what’s important about all these legislative issues is that it was always the volunteer members of the Association who were the experts in the process,” says Bill. “It was the members who ultimately made the difference through their testimony, their work, their expertise … without them, nothing would have ever been accomplished.”

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Back among the stacks of boxes in Bill’s office at the OSBA, we discuss his many plans for the future following his retirement from the Association in July, which include spending more time with his wife of 42 years, Kathleen, his two daughters Lisa and Leslie, his son-in-law Brian and his grandson Will. He’s staying on with the OSBA as a consultant, continuing his life’s work in the pursuit of justice and in service to the law. As for the boxes? “There are about 50 more and maybe a dozen filing cabinets in the basement,” he says. “I’m going to write a book about the legislative history of the OSBA.”

Retirement also means taking in plenty of baseball, one of Bill’s favorite pastimes since his early days as a child watching Willie Mays play at The Polo Grounds in New York City. He mentions that in his opinion, hitting a baseball is the greatest challenge in sports. Conversationally, I ask what he feels is the greatest chal¬lenge in the legal profession and our society today. “The biggest challenge is to ensure that the public has faith in the system, that the public truly believes that there is justice for all. That it is truly colorblind, that there’s not one system for the wealthy and one for the poor. That the justice system applies the law equally to everybody and that people have access to the system, and that they feel our jurists will listen to them, treat them with dignity, treat them with respect. The challenge isn’t just to ensure that the public believes this. The real challenge is to make it a reality. And that’s our job. It’s what we are all about.”

Congratulations, Bill, on a job well-done.

Author bio
John Hocter is the publications editor for the Ohio State Bar Association.

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