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Ret. Summit Cty. Probate Judge Willard Spicer remembered

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 15, 2023

A progressive and respected jurist, Summit County Probate Judge Willard Francis Spicer never shied away from controversial issues, ruling on cases involving matters such as the right to die and medical treatment. He also spearheaded an overhaul of Ohio’s guardianship laws.
“Judge Spicer was a very knowledgeable judge whose opinions helped change the landscape of probate law in the state and nationally,” said attorney Larry Poulos, who was Judge Spicer’s chief magistrate for almost 20 years.
“He was a kind, compassionate man who believed wards should be treated with compassion and his efforts led to some major revisions in state probate law that improved their situation and brought some uniformity to probate procedures,” said Poulos, now of counsel at Rischitelli & Poulos and Barry M. Ward Co.
“Judge Spicer was a brilliant judge who made some landmark decisions that have since been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court,” said retired Akron Municipal Clerk of Courts Jim Laria, who served as Judge Spicer’s court administrator for more than 10 years. “He was a true leader and a great guy who did a lot to modernize the courts and help people.”
On Aug. 27, Spicer, who retired from the bench in 2011, passed away peacefully at his home. He was 81.
“Bill was a quiet, cerebral guy, who kept his own counsel and was incredibly determined,” said his spouse and longtime partner Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Greg Peacock. “Bill was a confident and secure man, who never hesitated to make tough decisions. He was loyal, loved the community and always treated everyone well.
“He was a student of history, who traveled to over 60 countries, studying the judicial systems of several countries in the process. I don’t think I ever met a higher quality human being,” said Peacock. “I was very fortunate to have been in his life.”
“Judge Spicer was one of my earliest mentors and I owe him a great deal,” said Laria. “He took a chance on me when I was just out of college and I don’t think my career would have progressed as it did without him.
“I consider him to be an underappreciated judge, who never got the credit that he truly deserved,” said Laria.
“In addition to having the courage and expertise to make landmark legal decisions, Judge Spicer had an eye for talent,” said Laria, adding some of those who benefited from his leadership included former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, U.S. District Judge John Adams and Summit County Common Pleas judges Mary F. Spicer (retired) and Alison McCarty, to name a few.
A native of Akron, Spicer is a descendant of Summit County’s first settlers. His ancestors arrived in the Western Reserve from Connecticut in the early 19th Century. Spicer Street and Spicer Hall at The University of Akron are named for the judge’s family.
His grandfather, Howard Spicer, was the county’s first juvenile court judge, said Peacock, and his first cousin, Mary F. Spicer, was the first female to serve as judge on the common pleas court.
Born on Jan. 12, 1942, the judge was the youngest of Alvah and Oda Spicer’s five boys.
Spicer received his undergraduate and law degrees from The University of Akron.
During college he joined the ROTC. When he graduated in 1965, he served in Vietnam for two years as a captain in the U.S. Army.
After earning his juris doctorate in 1972, he began his career as an Akron assistant prosecutor.
From 1975 to 1978, he was an assistant U.S. attorney before taking on the role of chief prosecutor for the city of Akron.
Former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes appointed Spicer to the Akron Municipal Court bench in 1979. He served on the municipal bench for less than a year before being appointed as probate judge in 1980.
A lifelong moderate Republican, Spicer served as probate judge for 31 years.
During his long tenure, he made landmark decisions, including a 1980 case involving a 70-year-old Akron woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease who was living on a respirator after suffering cardiac arrest.
Edna Marie Leach was in a semi-comatose state for six months when Spicer issued a precedent-setting decision approving a request from her husband to remove her from life support. He was the first probate judge in the state to grant such a request.
The case was shrouded in controversy and in the end the family had to use an out-of-town doctor to remove her from life support.
In 1993, Spicer approved a court-appointed guardian’s recommendation that 15-year-old Carla Myers be removed from life support after a car accident left her in a persistent vegetative state.
Then in 2004, Spicer issued another ruling allowing a court-appointed guardian to remove Aiden Stein from life support. The infant was a victim of shaken baby syndrome and was living in a vegetative state as a result of the incident.
His parents appealed the decision. Spicer argued they should not be allowed to decide his fate since they could face criminal charges if he died. The following year, a jury convicted Aiden’s father, Matthew Stein, of felonious assault and child endangerment.
However, unlike in other cases in which family members eventually agreed with the result, Aiden Stein’s family continued to appeal. Ultimately the Ohio Supreme Court overturned Spicer’s decision, ruling that Aiden’s mother had the right to make the final decision. His former magistrate, Maureen O’Connor, who was then a Supreme Court justice, dissented.
According to Peacock, Aiden’s case became a “cause célèbre” for the “right to life” movement on the heels of the Terri Schiavo case.
“They even went so far as to purchase billboard space in Akron criticizing Judge Spicer by name for his decision,” said Peacock. “Ultimately, the case was an issue of parental rights and not the right to die.”
Aiden died in 2016 at the age of 12 at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
Spicer also ordered a caesarean section for a pregnant woman whose religious beliefs wouldn’t allow her to have the surgery, said Peacock.
When he retired from the probate court, then Gov. John Kasich appointed now Barberton Municipal Court Presiding/Administrative Judge Todd McKenney to fill the remainder of his term.
“When I became probate judge, I met with Judge Spicer and he was very gracious and helpful to me,” said Judge McKenney. “He was always available to take my calls and answer my questions.
“He left me both of his judicial robes which I continue to use today. They still have his initials in the lining and they are the only ones I have ever worn.
“Judge Spicer had a really big impact on probate law,” said Judge McKenney. “He took on end-of-life decisions at a critical time before there were advanced directives and living wills. Advances in medical science, where people could be kept alive with ventilators and around the clock care, required probate law to adapt to changing times, especially in the area of guardianships.
“Probate judges were on the front lines of these issues,” said Judge McKenney. “Judge Spicer faithfully applied the law with wisdom and common sense to some of the hardest cases I can imagine and eventually, Ohio law came to embody a reasonable approach to these end-of-life issues.”
Bob Rischitelli, founding partner of Rischitelli & Poulos, said Spicer was an “outstanding person” and “a very capable jurist” with “a great feel” for humanity.
“Judge Spicer helped expand and codify guardianship law in Ohio by modernizing it in the late ‘90s,” said Rischitelli, who served as Spicer’s law clerk from 1996-2000. “The statutes at the time just did not contemplate all of the dynamics of a guardianship and Judge Spicer saw the need for those changes and was instrumental in that expansion of the law to meet the needs of the vulnerable citizens of Ohio. 
“His views on guardianship and probate law are respected in Ohio and around the country.”
Peacock said throughout his adult life, Spicer was an avid collector of furniture and art, attending numerous real estate sales as well as spending countless hours studying and writing about his ancestors.
He was also a diehard Zips football and basketball fan, attending just about every game and cheering the teams on right to the end.
“Even if they were losing, Bill would refuse to leave,” said Peacock. “He never gave up on them.
“He was a solid guy whose loyalty never wavered whether it was to his family, the community or his university,” said Peacock. “There was nothing phony about him.
“His death is a great loss to his family and to the community he served.”
Interment will take place at Western Star Cemetery in Norton, the resting place of his ancestors, at a later date.
Spicer is survived by his spouse and longtime partner Greg Peacock, his nieces, nephews and cousins, including retired Judge Mary F. Spicer, as well as his longtime caregiver and best friend Joshua Singer.