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EDITORIAL: Ohio court takes on negative eBay feedback

Bad decision, long turnaround time, should not rule again

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The Ohio Supreme Court is staffed by legal minds so weak that it's only a matter of time before they are nominated to federal jobs by President Obama. For expressing this opinion, which appears in print as well as online at washingtontimes.com, a majority of Ohio's top judges believe we should be hauled into court in Columbus. We'd like to see them try.

In a 4-2 decision last week, justices decreed that the Buckeye State could take jurisdiction over nonresidents who criticize residents on the Internet. Scott Roberts, a 30-year-old who lives in Virginia, had posted comments on eBay and automotive discussion forums describing his unsatisfactory experience with an Ohio firm that sold him a high-performance engine for his Pontiac.

Although Mr. Roberts had never set foot in Ohio and directed his opinions at fellow car enthusiasts without regard to their location, the court insisted it had the right to pass judgment on his actions because five people who happen to live in Ohio read his posting. Presumably, if other courts shared this bizarre interpretation of the law, there would be no limit to the number of venues in which one could be simultaneously sued after making a controversial statement on a website.

The chilling implications for free speech are obvious, but it will have an even more immediate impact on the quality of online commerce. In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Roberts' attorney, William J. Kepko, warned that anyone who might want to leave negative feedback about a transaction on websites like eBay better think twice. Sellers now have a weapon to discourage open and honest feedback. "What the hell, I'll sue him in Ohio, because the cost of defending makes you blink," Mr. Kepko said. Faced with the need to hire legal representation across state lines, the most common outcome would likely be the nonresident's failure to answer the complaint, entitling the seller to receive a default judgment. "That's the significance of this decision," Mr. Kepko added.

The hassle involved in fighting suits of this nature is apparent from the experience of Mr. Roberts, who has spent four years defending himself without resolution. The justices didn't actually consider the merits of the dispute between Mr. Roberts and the Ohio firm. Mr. Roberts maintains that he was sold a defective product. The other side says the engine met all appropriate specifications, but was modified inappropriately by Mr. Roberts. Both sides now return to the Knox County Courthouse, where such issues will be dragged out now that jurisdictional questions have been settled.

The ability to express one's opinion about the quality of a transaction on the Internet is on the line as this case makes its way back through the legal system. Unfortunately, it appears the last call on this point will also be made by the Ohio Supreme Court, which leaves little room to hope for an appropriate ruling.

Justices in Ohio are elected to six-year terms. Residents should think twice before returning to the bench any jurist who signed on to this batty decision.

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