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The Ohio Supreme Court issued a 4-3 decision in State v. Mole, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5124, on July 28, 2016. The issue before the Court was whether R.C. 2907.03(A)(13) violated the equal protection clause of the United States and Ohio constitutions. The felony sexual battery statute prohibited sexual conduct by a peace office with a minor when the officer is more than two years older than the minor.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice O’Connor, recognizes that the Equal Protection Clauses of the United States and Ohio Constitutions are “substantively equivalent” and require the same review (see Paragraph 14). O’Connor then goes on to examine the authority of a state supreme court to independently construe its own state’s constitution. Citing both Ohio Supreme Court and United States Supreme Court precedent, the opinion states that the Ohio Constitution is an independent document and that state courts may interpret their state constitutions as providing¬† greater rights and protections beyond what may be afforded by the federal constitution. O’Connor cites decisions where the Ohio Supreme Court moved away from federal interpretations and provided greater protections, and decisions where the Court held closely to the federal interpretations. The majority opinion states that the Ohio Supreme Court makes the final decisions on the meaning of the Ohio Constitution, and will construe broader individual rights when the Court deems it appropriate. Therefore, the Court determines that R.C. 2907.03(A)(13) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Ohio Constitution and is unconstitutional, even if the federal clause may be interpreted differently (see Paragraphs 21-23).

To reach the decision that R.C. 2907.03(A)(13) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Ohio Constitution, the majority opinion applies the rational-basis test and examines whether the provision regarding peace officers was rationally related to a legitimate state purpose. R.C. 2907.03 was intended to prohibit sexual conduct in situations where the offender is taking advantage of an authoritative relationship with the victim or the victim is part of a vulnerable population. The state argued that the rational basis for adding the peace officer provision, regardless of whether the officer was taking advantage of their professional status, was to hold peace officers to a higher standard to ensure integrity, maintain public trust, and protect minors (see Paragraph 45). The majority opinion notes that other provisions of the statute require an occupational relationship between the offender and the victim, such as teacher and student or mental health professional and patient. However, the section dealing with peace officers did not require an occupational relationship, and instead imposed strict liability based only on the offender’s occupational classification. The majority opinion then determines that using a person’s classification as a peace officer to impose different sexual conduct standards, even where the conduct at issue was not related to the offender’s occupation, is not rationally related to a legitimate state interest (see Paragraphs 68-70).

Justice Kennedy dissented, writing that the protections provided by the Ohio Equal Protection Clause and the federal clause are the same. Kennedy disagreed with the majority’s analysis of Ohio precedent and argued that the Court instead should have focused on the language and history of each clause. By viewing the protections under both clauses as the same, Kennedy determined that the statute would have survived rational-basis review (see Paragraphs 73-74). Justice French also dissented, writing that the majority opinion does not provide enough analysis explaining why Ohio’s clause should be interpreted more broadly than the federal clause, and that the statute was rationally related to legitimate state interests (see Paragraphs 110-118).

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