Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
OSBA Convention
May 3, 2012

Thank you, Carol Seubert Marx, for that introduction and for the invitation to speak at the bar’s annual convention. Thank you as well for your leadership of the OSBA.

Congratulations are in order for the bar’s president-elect, Judge Pat Fischer, whom I’m looking forward to working with over the next year. Congratulations as well to Jack Stith for receiving the state bar’s highest honor.

I’m grateful that several of my colleagues on the court could join us today, including Justice Terrence O’Donnell, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger and Justice Robert Cupp. Thank you for being here. And to all the members of the bar from all corners of the state, thank you for that reception.

I want to talk to you today about how maintaining access to courts means upholding access to justice, which dovetails with this year’s ABA Law Day theme of “No Courts. No Justice. No Freedom.”

The Great Recession has brought major challenges, including those facing courts across Ohio and around the nation that continue to struggle with flat and reduced funding.

But with challenge comes opportunity. As Winston Churchill famously said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” We have an opportunity here that we cannot let pass us by. If we are creative, diligent and resourceful in our response to the budgetary situation we continue to face, then the result can be a stronger court system that is even more open, accessible and transparent.

The reality is that we cannot afford to do otherwise. Open and accessible courts are not a luxury. They are an absolute necessity in a free and civilized society. They are guaranteed in the Ohio and U.S. constitutions.

What do we mean by access to justice? It starts with basic, physical access. We have to keep the courtroom doors open. We can’t curtail hours. We can’t inconvenience the people who must use the courts to resolve their disputes or to fight their traffic tickets or to finalize their adoptions. Closed doors and curtailed hours not only are an inconvenience, but they are hugely symbolic. What does it say about the value that we place on justice when we literally close the courthouse door because of money?

But beyond limitations to physical access to the courts, there are other ways we must work to maintain access to justice. What are the barriers for litigants for whom English isn’t their primary language? For the hearing impaired? What about for juveniles who need legal representation to ensure their voice is heard? And, what about the poor civil litigant who cannot access legal representation through Legal Aid because there is just not enough legal talent to meet the needs?

It is imperative that we, the bench and the bar, work together in these difficult financial times to maintain access to justice. It is imperative that challenges are met by not only addressing the funding but by also examining where efficiencies lie, where alternatives can be identified, where solutions can be implemented that may not cost a thing.

As a member of the bar, I’m sure you recognize the practical argument of advocating for court funding and access and openness of our courts. Without unfettered access to courts there is a limitation on the ability to resolve cases in a timely manner. Without unfettered access there is a limitation on your ability to advocate effectively for your clients. Your performance as a lawyer is negatively affected if your client’s needs cannot be addressed within our courts.

It is a tenant of our Lawyer’s Creed that “a lawyer shall strive to improve the law and our legal system and to make the law and our legal system available to all.”

So, as lawyers we have multiple motivations to face the entire access issue. I am happy to report to you today on progress we are making in this area. In February, I announced the membership of the Task Force on the Funding of Ohio Courts. This body was formed to look beyond the immediate financial situation and examine long-term solutions to strengthen the financial picture of Ohio’s courts. It was also tasked with pursuing systemic change and further cost savings through a collaborative process involving Ohio’s judges, lawyers and all stakeholders in the legal community.

A thorough examination at how the court system is structured is needed in Ohio. Are we driving a Cadillac when a motorcycle will do? Or maybe our Ford Taurus just needs a tune-up and an oil change. We’ll find out. But an overarching objective must be to pursue a responsible use of our limited resources.

In addition, the task force has other specific charges: to identify exactly how much money is dedicated to funding our courts from all sources; to determine the long-term efficacy of the current funding models; to review possible alternatives that might provide sustained and consistent funding for Ohio courts.

So far, the 29-member group has held two meetings and will continue to meet throughout this year and next and issue a report by end of 2013. Several members of the bar are serving on the panel, and I thank them for that.

As part of this initiative, there are other considerations too. Those include: the need to examine the structure we want to keep open; the need to prioritize in order to be as efficient and practical as possible; the need to make use of technological advances; where and when court consolidations should be considered; and does the 1968 Modern Courts Amendment need to be revised? Is there a role for the ongoing Constitutional Modernization Commission to play?

Everything should be on the table and no reluctance should exist to do whatever is necessary to preserve access to our courts throughout the state. To say that the organized bar plays a critical role at both the state and federal levels is an understatement. The current ABA president, Bill Robinson, has made solving court funding his number one issue and priority.

We should borrow the good ideas of the ABA and other states. For instance, what solutions and reforms have been implemented? How have states mitigated the impact of severe funding cuts to courts?

We are not alone struggling with less funding. Forty-two states cut their state courts’ budgets in 2011, reducing access to justice for millions of Americans through layoffs, reduced court hours and other money-saving measures.

The OSBA has shown leadership here, too. The bar’s officers have raised awareness of this critical issue with members of the media and during speaking engagements with community groups. It will also be addressed at this fall’s district level meetings. Our partners at the Ohio Judicial Conference are also engaged in this issue.

So in addition to various stakeholders coming together to examine our current court system to quantify the resources expended and to identify and recommend quality solutions, we must recognize that maybe there is a greater role for existing programs such as alternative dispute resolutions. In many instances ADR is a smarter way to resolve disputes as it can be less expensive for the litigants and faster. It can be less acrimonious and the lasting results are to everyone’s benefit. The world of ADR has grown as has the tools to be used. From family law to contract law to employment and consumer issues, ADR can offer genuine benefit while relieving the over burdened court system. Please don’t misunderstand; no party should be forced into ADR without their consent. But it should be considered as one tool in the box to help parties solve their disputes in a fair, economical and final manner.

How about one of the solutions to access for litigants  to pro bono representation just identified by Chief Justice Lippman for the state of New York; mandatory 50 hours of pro bono before one can become a member of the New York Bar. Of course the devil is in the details but the plan is intriguing, and of course the goal is to fill the gap created by limited resources of the New York Legal Aid.

What can members of the bar do to help? Participate in the discussion; funnel ideas to a Task Force member; realize your livelihood may be at stake and get involved. We who work in the legal system can’t simply bemoan a lack of funding for courts and the consequences and leave it at that. We can’t make demands only to keep a sinking ship afloat. We must make an effort to think differently. Improving the delivery of services is paramount even if we weren’t faced with the financial constraints. Thank you.

Now, I’m pleased to present the fifth John C. and Ginny Elam Pro Bono Award. This award was created in 2007 to acknowledge and support the work of the bar in providing free legal services in Ohio and recognizes a lawyer’s exceptional pro bono legal work in Ohio, which may consist of pro bono representation necessary to make the system of justice available to all, support to organizations that provide pro bono representation to indigent clients, or time and skills donated to community, governmental and other activities that promote the common good.

For more than 50 years, this Columbus attorney has given generously of his time and talent to charitable causes, health-related services and family-oriented civic activities that have had a profound effect on the quality of life for hundreds of people in central Ohio.

Please join me in congratulating James Feibel for his pro bono work and for receiving the 2012 John and Ginny Elam Pro Bono Award.