COLUMBUS — The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday threw out sections of the state’s new sex offender law after ruling the provisions unconstitutionally altered previous judges’ decisions.
In a 5-1 decision, the high court said Thursday that classification provisions of the sex offender law passed in 2008 violate the separation of powers among branches of government.
The state must now revisit cases of sex offenders who were reclassified after the Legislature passed the law and place them back in categories judges chose under more flexible guidelines in an earlier law. That could subject the sex offenders to less stringent community notification and registration guidelines than the new law envisioned.
The court left the tougher oversight scheme in place for offenders convicted since the new law has been in effect.
Classifications such as “sexually-oriented criminal” or “sexual predator” under the old Megan’s Law were replaced with a tiered classification system under the new Adam Walsh Law. Offenders were moved into the tiers based solely on the offense they had committed, whereas Megan’s Law had allowed judges to hold a hearing and use some discretion in assigning offenders a category.
The case before the Supreme Court involved three men convicted of sex-related crimes in 2007. The three — Christian Bodyke, David Schwab and Gerald Phillips — underwent formal hearings called for under the old law and were assigned categories that required postrelease registration with the sheriff in the county where they live.
In November 2007, they received letters from the attorney general saying the law had been changed and, as of Jan. 1, 2008, they would be considered Tier III offenders.
The change meant they were subject to more stringent registration and community-notification requirements.
Writing for the majority, Justice Maureen O’Connor said the earlier judges’ decisions in the three cases were binding. Only courts can change the decisions of courts.
“It is well settled that a legislature cannot enact laws that revisit a final judgment,” she wrote. “We have held for over a century that ‘the Legislature cannot annul, reverse, or modify a judgment of a court already rendered.’”
Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Paul Pfeifer and Terrence O’Donnell agreed with the majority on the separation-of-powers issue. Chief Justice Eric Brown, appointed to replace the late Thomas Moyer, did not participate in the case.
In his dissent, Justice Robert Cupp said lawmakers didn’t interfere with court decisions in the Adam Walsh Act, but simply ordered the attorney general to transfer offenders from one classification to another based on a set of fixed criteria.
“Rather than burden the courts with sifting the hundreds or thousands of sex offenders to which new and different requirements apply, the General Assembly assigned that administrative task to an executive officer, the attorney general,” Cupp wrote.