Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
New Judge Orientation
Dec. 11, 2017

Good morning, everyone.

Thank you, Christy, for your kind introduction.

I also want to thank you and Debbie Weinberg for leading the Judicial College’s training – and I want to thank all of the staff at our college here for everything they do.

In a few minutes, Christy and Debbie will lay out the next four days for you.

But, first, I want you to know that it is an honor for me to be with you, and to get the week rolling for you.

I’d like to welcome you to the Supreme Court and our magnificent building.

And I’d like to congratulate you for your electoral victories … or appointments …and welcome you to your new lives on the bench.

You’re about to begin four full days of preparation for your work as judges.

You are going to learn a lot this week. You’re also going to become acquainted with our staff.

I can tell you from my many years in the judiciary that preparation should never stop. Actually, it can’t stop, or you won’t succeed.

I want you to know that the staff and resources of the Supreme Court will always be at your disposal.

The demands for preparation and judicial education have always been with us on the bench.

But today, preparation is more vital than ever to what we do.

We must teach ourselves how to deal with constant change.

Society is asking more of judges today than ever before.

The challenges are enormous.

The good news is that the learning begins today, here on site, with fellow judges as teachers and the experts from the Supreme Court staff and affiliated offices.

Among those from our staff who will help you …

John Groom, our Court’s security services manager, will address court and personal security issues.

As all of you know, Jefferson County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese was ambushed and shot outside his courthouse last summer. Thankfully, he survived and returned to the bench …. rather quickly and heroically, I must say. Yet, his experience is a reminder for all of us that we cannot let our guards down when it comes to keeping courthouse personnel safe.

Christine Kidd, our director of H-R, will talk to you about compensation and benefits.

Mike Buenger, the administrative director of the Court, will kick off a round of administrative presentations. 

Craig Mayton, chief legal counsel, will discuss judges’ liability insurance.

Erick Gale, one of our master commissioners, will speak on affidavits of disqualification.

Diane Hayes, judicial assignment specialist, will relate how those assignments are carried out.

Bruno Romero, manager of interpreter services, will explain the rules and uses of interpreters. Language services are available to ensure all litigants – including those hard of hearing and whose first language isn’t English – can understand court proceedings.

And Tasha Ruth, manager of the case management section of the Court, will discuss case flow and statistical reporting.

Your opening set of topics this morning couldn’t be better.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Janet Burnside will speak on establishing your judicial philosophy and reputation. 

Stark County Common Pleas Court Judge Taryn Heath and Rick Dove and Allan Asbury of the Board of Professional Conduct will inform you about judicial ethics.

The seminars this week will be extremely helpful. You might feel overwhelmed with information overload. But remember that all of our presenters are here not only to speak, but to become a resource for you.

Before the sessions begin there are some matters I’d like you to think about during the week … and when you get home and set up shop.

Those of you who were elected know that campaigns are difficult. You may have expected your victory. … Maybe a few of you were surprised to win! I’m sure all of you are happy that phase is over.

Some of you were appointed.

Either way, you will now embark on many new and important responsibilities to the public you serve, to the staff you inherited or will hire, and to the litigants who will come before you.

The people who seek your assistance …. and those with whom you work … have the right to demand that you are legally competent, totally professional, and service-oriented.

Being an officer of the court is all about service to our fellow citizens.

Yes, you are an officeholder. Keep in mind that an elected or appointed officeholder is a public servant.  As a public servant you have important responsibilities:

Please begin by keeping your docket up to date.

Make your best effort to be congenial and patient.

Listen to those who work for you, and those who come before you in court.

Network with other judges. You will have a mentor judge who has volunteered to be a mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask. It’s not only expected, it’s your obligation. 

Once you’re comfortable on the bench and you’re managing your time well, get involved in your community.

How should you do that? By being an advocate for the judiciary.

Educate your fellow citizens about the courts and what we do.  As a whole, the citizenry doesn’t know enough about us and our work. Far from it.

One way to go about this mission is to deliver a breakfast or luncheon speech to a civic organization.

Remarks about your first year on the bench is an excellent topic for a Rotary or any other group breakfast or luncheon.

You can tell them how the courts function and what you are learning – and how your experiences as a judge are changing you.

The material for this part of your presentation will be easy, because being a judge will change you.

You can enlist your audiences in finding out more about judges on their own by telling them about tools such as the JudicialVotesCount – dot - org website.

And never forget to ask your community members about themselves.

Think about it this way: You and your court need community support. To get that support, you must connect. And there’s no better way to connect than to be visible and accessible …. and by letting members of the community at all levels know that you care about them and viewpoints.

As a dedicated public servant who answers to the rule of law, you are charged with a solemn duty to issue decisions faithfully and impartially.

As chief justice, I have been asked many, many times to administer an oath to those called upon to carry out a particular duty.

A judge’s career starts with an oath when admitted to the bar. The lawyer swears to uphold the constitution and laws of the United States and of Ohio and to uphold the ethical standards incumbent upon all who practice law.

The promise is to treat all with respect, courtesy, and dignity.

Upon becoming a member of the judiciary, another oath is administered, to further bind that individual to perform additional duties and responsibilities.

The oath pledges precise conduct …. both on and off the bench.

These are not merely words.

Taking of an oath -- the swearing in -- is more than just a ceremonial custom. It is not to be taken lightly. It has real significance.

As a result of your oath, your conduct is anchored by the public good and the public trust.

By raising your right hand and swearing to the oath – either for the first time, if you are new to the bench, or multiple times in a new court – you are bound by duty to your fellow citizens.

Part of the duty must include a realization – and a transformation – from the bar to bench …

… From zealous advocate to neutral arbiter.

If you’re being honest with yourself, you will soon learn how much you don’t know and need to learn.

That’s OK. Seek out a trusted colleague on the bench, and your assigned mentor, and ask him or her how to handle a situation.

Take the networking opportunity you have this week and develop relationships -- with our staff and the judges who are teaching these next few days – and with each other.

There will be times when only a fellow new judge will know what you’re going through and dealing with. Add that person’s name and number to your contacts in your phone. Check in on one other. Serve as each other’s support system.

Now, I would like to address a problem plaguing America … a problem that you – especially municipal court judges – are in a unique position to address.

“The first duty of society is justice.” Our country’s founders elevated the pursuit of justice to the highest level. That particular observation is most often attributed to Alexander Hamilton.

Yes, the first duty of society is, indeed, justice.

But social duties often aren’t carried out.

The duty of municipalities to pay bills and support their operations is often placed ahead of justice.

What I’m talking about is the issue of fines, fees and bail and how they are levied in many places, in our state and in America.

People convicted of crimes should face consequences for their behavior, and that may include a monetary sanction.

However, justice is not served when fines or fees are assessed to citizens who cannot afford to pay.

The most burdensome fines and fees often fall most heavily on those can least afford to pay them.

When they can’t pay, they can lose their jobs, face collection agencies – and even go to jail – until they, or someone – pays up.

This is why we refer to this problem as “debtor’s prisons.”

Depending upon where your court is located, you may come under pressure from your local government to place revenue before justice.

But your court should not operate as an ATM for your city council. The courts are one of the three co-equal branches of government that must be funded adequately by their legislative funding authorities.

Only in this way can equitable justice come about.

If the public views your court as a revenue source for your local government, then the cost of justice is too high and the public will become cynical about the fairness of our profession.

This is an everyday problem in America and Ohio. It rarely made headlines until 2015 when the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on the origins of the Ferguson, Missouri, disturbances.

The Justice Department called out the Ferguson Municipal Court for its “pattern or practice” of …. and I quote here:

“Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.”

The report went on to observe that, “Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bearden versus Georgia that these kinds of practices – particularly incarceration – are not acceptable unless the courts have assessed the citizen’s ability to pay at sentencing and concluded that he or she can pay – but is refusing to do so.

Since this problem occurs most often at the municipal court level, Bearden versus Georgia should be of particular note to all of you.

You will get more detail on this issue tomorrow (Tuesday) when Judges Adrine and Froehlich  (Ron  Adrine of the Cleveland Municipal Court and Jeffrey Froelich of the Second District Court of Appeals) talk to you about access to justice.

Also, I am honored to be the current president of the national Conference of Chief Justices. The CCJ, along with the Conference of State Court Administrators, has drafted guiding principles and developed tools for a wide range of issues -- and fines, fees and bail practices are a primary focus for us.

I must add that our Judicial College is offering an online course on fines, fees and costs and I urge each of you to take this very thoughtful and important training.

As a municipal judge, you are in a position of trust and one that focuses on duty to the litigants before you and to the court.

The stakes are high, and the expectations are great.

Having said that, remember to balance your life.

Keep a sense of humor.

Don’t forget to build in time for your family, your spiritual growth and yourself.

You’ll be a better judge and a better human being ….and becoming a better human being will make you an even better judge.

Remember to consider our Supreme Court staff as an asset for you.

Thanks to all of you for listening.

And thank you for your efforts to further the cause of justice in Ohio.

Best of luck.

May God Bless.