Justices appeared skeptical of both sides in a state Supreme Court hearing on whether the brain, heart and other body parts removed during an autopsy should be returned to the relatives of the deceased instead of being destroyed.
The case heard Wednesday pits coroners against parents of a 30-year-old man who discovered years after his death that they had buried him without his brain.
During oral arguments Wednesday, Justice Paul Pfeifer at one point called "totally lame" an argument by coroners' attorneys that coroners would be less likely to do thorough autopsies if property rights were involved.
At another moment, another justice, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, asked an attorney for the family to cite the Constitution to bolster his legal argument, asking where guarantees of liberty or property fit into the case.
Christopher Albrecht died in December 2001 when he suddenly plunged his vehicle into a pond. The coroner determined that an epileptic seizure prompted his accident, but that his death was caused by drowning.
Albrecht's parents learned years later that they had buried him without a brain. They filed a lawsuit against coroners and commissioners in 87 of Ohio's 88 counties.
The case has drawn attention because of its possible impact on coroners, crime investigators, emergency medical technicians, funeral directors and followers of religions that espouse the importance of burying the whole body.
Coroners' attorneys say guaranteeing families the right to the organs, tissue, blood and other fluids extracted during an autopsy could jeopardize criminal evidence.
"Plaintiffs would have you believe that you can do an autopsy and still return all of the body," Mark Landes, a lawyer representing the coroners, told the judges. "That's a definitional impossibility."
Brains are particularly difficult to reunite with a body in time for burial, because it takes three to 14 days to prepare them for examination.
In a brief, the Medical Examiners Association said material from a dead body is almost always lost. Bodies lose fluids at accident scenes and parts of some bodies are never found, the group said.
Under Ohio law, brains, hearts and other body parts and fluids removed during an autopsy are classified as medical waste, which generally means they are incinerated after use.
Justice Maureen O'Connor suggested to attorneys for the family that allowing their legal argument to prevail would have a sweeping impact on the entire medical profession.
Attorneys for the family have been taken to task by the court for making a legal question too emotional. Some briefs have contained references to Achilles' slaying of Hector in "The Iliad," the drowning of Shakespeare's Ophelia and poet Walt Whitman's "I Sing The Body Electric."
Lawyers for the coroners at one point tried and failed to get one particularly verbose submission — which traced the history of death from ancient to modern times — stricken from the record.