Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Common Pleas Judges Association
De. 6, 2017

Good afternoon. It’s great to be with all of you.

I want to congratulate all the new officers and trustees.

Thanks as well for your leadership of Ohio’s common pleas courts over the last year.

I would like to take a few minutes to recognize the success stories of common pleas courts across the state.

These are judges who have demonstrated innovation in their courts. Two courts in the common pleas general division received our Court Innovation grant funds during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017. Those funds not fully spent were actually extended into the remainder of this calendar year.
Judge Bruce Winters from Ottawa County received one such grant for a mental health court docket. He has done an excellent job with that docket.

He has formed wonderfully effective community resource relationships allowing cohesive work between the court system, the treatment team, and his community in the greater Ottawa County area -- all for the benefit of the people who need help.

I would like to recognize Williams County Common Pleas Court led by Judge J.T. Stelzer. 

He is a leader in using court innovation grants that help families in Williams, Defiance, Fulton, and Henry Counties set up a multi-county regional family law mediation program. It speaks well of courts that work together across county jurisdictional lines to use our precious financial resources efficiently.

Judge Stelzer and his staff in Williams County worked selflessly to help their colleagues in adjoining counties with the difficult issues that often arise in family court disputes.

These monies provided by the Supreme Court helped counties work together to provide services that ultimately help the courts solve problems in a timely and cost-effective manner.

This gives greater access to justice to those we serve. This program also helps people have a meaningful way to develop solutions to their own problems.

As we know, satisfaction with outcomes of court proceedings and compliance with court orders are more effective when the parties play a significant role in the outcomes of their cases, particularly in family law disputes.

When I speak of the successes of courts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some great work being done with our specialty docket courts.
We currently have 255 specialized dockets in Ohio either certified or in the process of certification as I speak.

And I want to give a shout out to Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Jack Durkin.

Not only is he celebrating 20 years on the drug court bench, but he’s also one of the leaders in the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative.

This group, led by the Supreme Court of Ohio and the first of its kind in the nation, is made up of 9 states to address regional opioid challenges and develop an action plan.

In September 2017, the Department of Justice awarded the RJOI one million dollars for the regional initiative.

We will hold a strategy session in early January to discuss many projects, including …

Bench cards for drug courts

Expanded access to OARRS to further cut down on doctor shopping for prescription drugs.

An initiative called Start Talking, which will educate children about drug abuse.

Child welfare and family issues.
Let me give you some background about the fast-changing world of drug abuse here in Ohio – and which Common Pleas Courts have to deal with.  

Last year, opioid-related deaths due to poisonings and overdoses came to 4,050 last year in our state, an increase of 1,000 from just one year before.

Fentanyl and related drugs were involved in more than 58 percent of these 4,050 deaths last year, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

I bring up fentanyl – and carfentanil, the synthetic opioid designed for tranquilizing very large animals that’s thousands of times more powerful than morphine – because it shows how problems can evolve. Deaths from prescription opioids are falling – thanks to our doctor-shopping interventions and other measures. Yet, opioid deaths are up because of increases in newer black-market drugs.

Another state agency (Jobs & Family Services) reports that of the people who come into contact with the Ohio child welfare system, nearly 43 percent have been identified as having a substance abuse problem.

50 percent of the children entering custody in Ohio have parents who were abusing drugs. Many counties report percentages in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Three rural counties report 100 percent.

Veterans return from combat with P-T-S-D, addictions, brain injuries and other trauma. And many come in contact with the criminal justice system.

That’s what has changed for our society – and for each of you. Situations full of peril – for individuals, families, schools, communities, employers – and the judicial systems that connect them all.

We are proud to have Judge Durkin on our team representing Ohio as we fight the opioid epidemic.

Next, I want to talk a bit about technology.

The Ohio Supreme Court has issued $1.8 Million in Technology Grant Funding to 44 common pleas courts this past year.

The Supreme Court makes these grants available to support local court technology projects through the Ohio Courts Technology Initiative.
The funds were to be used to address a variety of issues and situations where the lack of sufficient technology is a barrier to the efficient and effective administration of justice.

Here a look at three of those projects:

With an $80,000 grant, Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Juvenile Judge Tony Capizzi was able to start his pilot project with IBM that would put the lightning-fast artificial intelligence system of Watson into better treatment for teens in his drug court. While this is a juvenile court project, the advent of Artificial Intelligence and its impact on courts will likely be significant in the not too distant future. This is something we all need to follow closely.

With an $82,968 grant, judges in Greene County Court of Common Pleas upgraded their audio-video recording system in three courtrooms.

With a combined $117,004 in grants, Hardin, Lake, Montgomery, Ottawa, and Perry counties are able up upgrade their websites, to allow for interactive, user-friendly use by attorneys, jurors, and the public.

The Supreme Court of Ohio makes grants available each year to assist Ohio courts and justice partners in funding upgrades to operations, innovative justice initiatives and more. Each grant type is targeted to a specific need or use.

I encourage you to apply for these grants, as the deadline is December 22.

As a result of the work of the court-appointed task force on grand jury issues, we have created a video and a brochure for you to show to prospective grand jurors.

These materials explain the history of grand juries, their importance, and the jurors’ role in our justice system.

The video and brochure will be available later this month.
In 2016, I was named co-chair of the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, created by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators. It has been my honor since August to be the president of the chief justices’ conference.

Our goal is to address the ongoing impact that court fines, fees, and bail practices have on economically disadvantaged Americans.

The failure of courts to levy appropriate financial sanctions and obligations raises due process and equal protection concerns.

All Americans must have equal access to the law and that is an obligation we all share.

As I conclude, please know that your service is appreciated.

I have walked in your shoes as a former common pleas judge.

I know that every day you are making tough decisions that affect real people, and that is a tremendous responsibility in Ohio’s 88 counties.

These decisions are not easy given the new and changing social demands made on courts across the state and our nation. It’s a heavy burden.

But the experience you carry, coupled with a knowledge of the law and your caring attitudes – and willingness to pursue new avenues to achieving justice -- benefits the judicial system overall.

Thank you for listening. And thank you as well for all you do each day to further the cause of justice in Ohio.

God bless.