Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Association of Magistrates Fall Conference
Sept. 27, 2017

Thank you Pam (Herringhouse, OAM President) for that introduction, for your leadership of the association, and for the invitation to speak here at the O-A-M’s annual fall conference.

I also want to thank Christy Tull and her staff at the Supreme Court of Ohio Judicial College for their work in partnering with you on this conference.

Good afternoon, everyone.

Much has changed since the first meeting in September 1989 of what was then the Ohio Association of Court Referees. Just a few of those changes include:

The breadth of what magistrates do.

The enhanced degree of professionalism

The accountability and responsibilities

…and the cars and hairstyles, of course.

Probably the biggest change for magistrates – and courts in general – is the breadth of what you do each day.

To better appreciate what you do – and to secure support for the courts you work in -- we need to keep better track of what you do, and how difficult your jobs can be.

Before I get into that topic I want to express a personal note of thanks.

As a former magistrate, please know that as the leader of the judicial branch I understand and appreciate what you do day-in and day-out to further the cause of justice in our state.

The training I received and the experience I gained as a magistrate in Summit County greatly contributed to where I am today.

Those eight years in probate court taught me that we, in a judicial role, are often the last resort for people who find themselves facing problems that they can’t solve on their own.

It taught me that there is never a situation that can’t be made better by listening to the litigants, showing respect for them, and by trying to diffuse the tension often associated with ‘court’.

That common sense goes an awful long way when addressing cases

And, one of the most important, people need answers as soon as possible…their lives are on hold until a decision is made by the court.

Whether you intend to run for judge some day or continue to serve in your current capacity, I want to tell you that you have chosen a great career. Thank you for your service.

One of your opening sessions this morning was entitled “Active Shooter Awareness.”

Security for all court employees and courthouse visitors has been a priority for the Supreme Court for many years. 

I want to emphasize that courthouse safety audits conducted by our security team at the Supreme Court are one major way that we can be of assistance to you, your judges and staff.

You and your colleagues should have security discussions on a regular basis at your courthouses.

More than a month has passed since Judge Joseph Bruzzese was ambushed and shot outside his Jefferson County courthouse. Thankfully, he continues to recover.

This incident shows the potential for violence against us simply for carrying out our duties.

We at the Supreme Court are here to help. Courses like the one offered here today are no longer an “elective” when it comes to court education.  

Security is a core curriculum item.

I also want to mention that tomorrow, Mike Buenger, the Administrative Director of the Supreme Court, will give a broad update on rules changes affecting you. Mike will go into depth about changes in the practice of law – by lawyers and non-lawyers –that will affect our court system.

I mentioned the breadth of what you do, and what your courts do today.

Those of you who tuned in to my annual “State of the Judiciary” address in August know that all judicial associations in the state of Ohio – the courts of appeals, the common pleas courts, domestic relations, juvenile and probate, and municipal and county judges – have given me their support to move ahead with a study aimed at putting numbers and data behind the work that we do every day.

Earlier this year I convened a working group of about 30 judges identified by these associations. I spoke with them and many other judges at length. The result is that we will embark on a weighted workload study.

We need to show the public and our colleagues in the two other government branches that the dynamics of our society are bringing major changes to how we operate on the public’s behalf.

Today I want to:
Explain to you why I think a weighted workload study  is important;

How it will work.

And how it will benefit you – and everyone in the judicial branch.

The idea for this kind of study has come up in years past. Sometimes, worries would surface about data being used to un-employ a judge.

Those worries are unfounded. Now, in fact, we are way beyond that kind of thinking. We need a study urgently because our workloads in the courtroom are increasing and we are at a loss to show the totality of these changes in black and white -- in data.

The data that we have been publishing for years are based on caseloads. It is very valuable data. But consider this, case filings in Ohio have decrease by over a million in the last decade…the numbers of judges remain at 722 and magistrates re up to approximately 800.  

How do we explain those staffing numbers base on caseload alone?

Caseload numbers alone fall short of describing the day-in and day-out work that magistrates and judges do in a society that is changing so quickly – and often in ways that impact our courts dramatically.

Who could have predicted even a few years ago that Ohio would have more than 100 drug courts today?

Who could have envisioned the growing need for veterans’ courts?

Who could have foreseen the needs of families and children that we see from the bench each day?

Here is the key question: Who among us can say that a caseload number – as important as it is -- tells the whole story of a case – from beginning to end?

The fact is, it cannot.

We all know that as case numbers have fallen, the amount of work involved in individual cases has risen.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should sit down with a magistrate or judge involved in a special court docket -- a juvenile docket, a probate docket -- or any other docket. They should consider human trafficking. Or courts dealing with mental health crises, veterans in turmoil, juveniles who have lost their parents to opioid poisoning.

Viewing the art of judging as merely calling balls and strikes is not a valid way to look at what we do. It is not what we do, nor is it what we should do.

With the correlation between our caseloads and our work being marginal, we have to come together and design a study that tells the story.

Luckily, we don’t have to re-invent any wheels. To date, 37 states have conducted weighted workload studies to better understand the amount of work it takes for a magistrate or judge to fulfill his or her obligation to society.

These studies have been conducted in partnership with the National Center for State Courts in Arlington, Va.

NCSC’s long involvement in this field means that we can tap into their methodologies and customize a study for Ohio’s judiciary.

Simply discussing the need for this type of deeper dive this year has yielded – for me – greater insights into the criminal justice system and how it is tied more and more to public health, family issues and community and governmental obligations.

Court supervision seems to be the order of the day for so many users of the court system. For example, efforts to change our corrections system frequently mean dealing with criminal offenders in our communities, rather than sending them somewhere else.

Take our 100-plus drug courts in Ohio.  If you add four other categories of specialized courts that also deal with drug issues, the number rises to more than 160.

There are Family Dependency Treatment Courts, Veterans’ Courts, OVI Courts, and Substance Abuse Mental Illness Courts. The list goes on.

We also now must deal with human trafficking, in essence a form of slavery.

Let that sink in for a minute. In 2017 in a nation noted across the planet for individual freedoms and rights, we are seeing human slavery emerge as a critical issue in society, and, therefore, our courts.

Who would have thought that in this day and age, in a nation of this wealth and sophistication, our magistrates and judges would have to deal with what is unquestionably issues of human trafficking and slavery?

It is tragic.

What happens in court today? You know the answer. Magistrates and judges meet with young offenders. They meet with addicts. They get together with their families. They set schedules and timetables for their treatments. They meet with law enforcement. They consider alternatives involving child welfare and health care. They address truancy, mental health issues, human trafficking, child support, re-entry programs – along with community needs and education.

Caseload numbers do not include the number of hearings conducted in a case or the number of parties to whom you interact.

I have visited courts and watched how a single day can encompass countless issues for a judge who’s attending to dozens of citizens. When I read a news story quoting one of our municipal court colleagues saying her work made her feel like a social worker, I nodded my head in agreement.

This is not the judicial system of the 60s, the 70s or even the early two-thousands, when caseload numbers told a broader story.

If we give Ohioans a better picture of today’s much more dynamic judicial system, they will have a better understanding of what we do – and the importance of what we do.

That will lead to more support for what we do.
And, we will be able to handle our caseloads more efficiently and effectively.

So, how do we fill in the story? One way is to look at what these other states have done.

 None of these 37 states has put a judge out of work.

What they have done is document the effects on structural changes so that their judicial systems can more effectively identify and advocate for resources.

We want to be of service to our citizens. A workload study can identify ways we can accomplish that goal more efficiently.

Are we talking about remaking the face of the justice system? No. But our changing world turns around on data.

Here’s some more context:

Since 2007 the total caseload in Ohio’s courts has dropped by 26 percent -- or more than 1 million cases.  This is consistent with trends across the nation where overall caseloads have dropped on average about 3.5 percent annually. 

We can likely attribute these declines to a number of factors:

Mediation is displacing courts as a center piece for resolving a number of disputes.

Statutory changes in areas such as juvenile corrections have resulted in a 35% reduction in those caseloads since 2007. Criminal cases across all courts are down by significant numbers.

Even traffic cases are experiencing a decrease.

What a weighted workload study does is provide greater insight into facets of time and effort that comprise your work day.

Studies produce revelations.

 One of the 37 states figured out – through a weighted workload study -- that the amount of time judges spend with a drug court defendant, on average, can be 4 to 5 times the amount of time a judge spends with a non-drug court defendant charged with the same offense.

That is important information not simply for resource planning but also for purposes of explaining what we do.

I am aware that studies like these can create concern. But I hope my past actions have demonstrated a commitment to your association, and to other judicial organizations, and that I have proven to be on your side.

It is the magistrates who are often the ones stepping up to provide the heavy lifting necessary to draft reports, vet concepts, and provide insight. Your efforts are critical to moving our system forward so that volumes of work get done on time -- and are done correctly.

I appreciate your commitment. I also appreciate those of you who volunteer to serve in leadership positions in this association, and in others.

So, stay tuned as we in the judiciary tackle the needs of the 21st Century. We will be part of the change, part of the dynamics, and we will define the judiciary going forward.

Thank you for allowing me to share this update with you, and thank you for meeting the demands of our ever-evolving court system.

God bless.