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Fundamental Documents of Ohio







1957 - 1959

Ohio's fifty-ninth governor, inaugurated on January 14, 1957, was C. William O'Neill. He was born in Marietta, Ohio, on February 14, 1916, one of two sons of Charles T. and Jessie (Arnold) O'Neill. He attended elementary school in Marietta and graduated from Marietta High School. At an early age he determined to enter the profession of his father, who holds a record of sixty-two years as a practicing attorney and forty-eight years as a justice of the peace. An aunt, who made a home for the family after the death of his mother when William was four years of age, had been a legal secretary. Thus it was that the lad imbibed law and politics with his meals. The future governor's interest in politics and his forensic ability were further developed by a high school debate instructor, A. D. Rupp, who coached the team of which young O'Neill was a member to victory in a national debate tournament in 1932. He received his A. B. degree cum laude from Marietta College in 1938. Four years later he graduated from the Ohio State University Law School, was admitted to the Ohio bar, and began the practice of law in partner- ship with his father in the Marietta firm, O'Neill and O'Neill. O'Neill's abilities were soon recognized by Washington County Republicans, and he was nominated for and elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1938, when he was twenty-two years of age, the youngest person ever elected to the house. Reelected five times, he served six successive terms from 1939 to 1950, during which time he was speaker of the house in 1947-48 and minority floor leader in 1949-50. His attendance at legislative sessions was interrupted by a tour of duty in the armed forces of the United States in 1943-46 when he was with General Patton's Third Army in Europe.

In 1950, O'Neill was elected attorney general of Ohio (at thirty- four, the youngest in Ohio history) and served in that office for three terms, January 1951 to January 1957. In his most important measure as attorney general, O'Neill conducted an investigation of narcotics traffic in Ohio and formulated a model narcotics control bill, which was passed by the general assembly in 1955. It is considered by many to be the best such law in the nation.

Attorney General O'Neill won the Republican nomination for governor in 1956 over Lieutenant Governor John W. Brown, and in the November election defeated the Democratic candidate, Michael V. Di- Salle, by a heavy majority (1,984,988 to 1,557,103). Sworn into office, January 14, 1957, by Chief Justice Weygandt, O'Neill promised to call upon "the whole potential of this great state to attain the goals of which we are capable."

One of the most important measures of the O'Neill administration was the legislation passed by the Republican-dominated general assembly which changed the concept of highway construction from building and maintaining short sections of roads and highways to the development of freeways and divided highways connecting distant towns and cities within the state. Another administration measure adopted by the legislature was one which divorced the office of director of department of mental health and correction from politics by giving the director a six-year term, rather than an indefinite term at the pleasure of the governor. This progressive measure has since been reversed.

A highly controversial issue was introduced during Governor O'Neill's term in a proposed "right-to-work" constitutional amendment, which would have made the union shop illegal. The governor gave his active support in favor of the amendment which was strongly opposed by organized labor and, after a heated campaign in which both sides spent large sums of money, was defeated by about a million votes. In a reaction against his stand on the right-to-work proposal and because local Republi- cans were alienated by a lack of patronage and indecision in administrative matters, Governor O'Neill went down to defeat in his bid for reelection in 1958. His opponent was Michael V. DiSalle, who won by a vote of 1,869,260 to 1,414,874, about the same margin by which he had been defeated by O'Neill two years earlier.

At the close of his term, Governor O'Neill resumed the practice of law with offices in both Columbus and Marietta. In 1959-60, he was also distinguished professor of public affairs at Bethany College (Bethany, West Virginia), lecturing to the entire student body, conducting a semi- nar, and teaching an adult evening class. He did not, however, long remain out of public office, for in November 1960, he was elected judge of the Supreme Court of Ohio and took his seat on the bench on December 1, 1960. In November 1964, he was reelected to the court for a six-year term. Judge O'Neill is credited with decisions in at least two landmark cases. He wrote the opinion in the Lonzrick v. Republic Steel Corporation case, which was affirmed by the court on June 15, 1966, in a 4 to 3. decision. In effect, this reversed the law in Ohio which held that a plain- tiff could not recover damages for an injury unless he could prove negligence on the part of the defendant. In Judge O'Neill's opinion, the manufacturer or distributor of a product gives an implied warranty that the purchaser will not be injured by its use. Negligence, therefore, need not be proven.

A decision which attracted much attention throughout the state was O'Neill's dissenting opinion in State, ex rel. Foreman v. Brown re- lating to the proposed Ohio bond issue amendment on the May 1966 primary ballots. He held that the proposal was unconstitutional on the grounds that an amendment could be submitted to the voters only at a general election, that there were diverse proposals under one amendment, and that the text was obscure. Chief Justice Taft's opinion upholding the constitutionality of the amendment was affirmed by the court in April 1967 in a 4 to 3 decision. O'Neill's arguments, however, were widely quoted, and the proposal was defeated by an overwhelming majority.

Since many years may be ahead of Judge O'Neill in his public career, it is too early to reach a verdict on its most important aspects. It may be that his chief claim to recognition in Ohio history will be in the field of jurisprudence in which he is already eminent. The Ohio Historical Society


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