Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Council for The Social Studies Diversity in Democracy Annual Conference
Sept. 25, 2017

Thank you, Jared (Reitz), and thank you President Patterson, President Cherry and Executive Director Paska.

And a special thanks to you, the social studies teachers, whose mission is so critical to our state and our nation. Especially today.

I understand that your national board is in attendance and to you I say, welcome to Ohio.

I hope all of you had a nice time at the Reds game last night. Three of our seven justices are from Cincinnati. They are Reds fans -- and as an Ohioan I also root for the Reds. So, those four votes constitute a majority opinion on our Court.

But I must tell you that I am from Northeastern Ohio and we have an American League team that has been winning games at a record streak. Cleveland came within a few outs of taking the World Series last year. So, I have high hopes for my hometown team over the next several weeks.

I want to begin by commending you for the choice of session topics these next two days. Our Court is in session this week and I have to rush back to Columbus … but I wish I could stay and listen – and take part in your discussions.

You CAN tell a book by its cover when the titles are compelling like those in your seminars.

One is titled “News Literacy in a Digital Age: Facing Ferguson.”

The events in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago led to a federal inquiry that found the city using fines, fees and court costs as an A-T-M for city income. The resentment of residents against a system rigged for revenue and not justice played a role in the disturbances there.

Just last month, I was fortunate to have been named the president of the national Conference of Chief Justices. Together with the Conference of State Court Administrators, we have formed a National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices to address the impact these financial obligations have on economically disadvantaged communities.

We call them “debtors’ prisons.” That’s a tough term, but an apt one, I believe.

We must ensure that access to justice is available to all – and not just those who can afford it.

You have a seminar entitled “A Better Police-Community Relationship,” and a round table discussion on “Social Justice Youth Development.”

I have to say thank you for tackling these difficult issues. And for working to formulate them for discussion in the classroom.

In fact, you have a session called “Entering the Conversation: Argument Writing as Civic Engagement.” Another has “Leveraging Inquiry” in its title. Another employs the term “Democratic Inquiry.”

This is commendable, because for us to solve the problems that confront America, we have to talk about them. We have to be willing to listen to all sides. And we have to be dedicated to using inquiry, facts and sound reasoning to form consensus. We can only bring about reform by bringing ourselves together in civil discourse.

Often, as leaders in our society, we must take on issues that shouldn’t be issues:
Accordingly, you have a seminar on “Teaching the Holocaust in an Age of Disinformation” …

And another lists “The Forgotten Past of Native American Removal”….

It’s easy to get depressed about the state of discourse and the knowledge of social studies topics in society today.

We must face the fact that in education, as in justice, positive change can take time.

Consider these ideas about education:

The public should not be ignorant.

Education should be paid for and sustained by an interested public.

Education is “best provided” when schools “embrace children from a variety of backgrounds”– which aligns with your diversity theme today and tomorrow.

Education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers, teaching in clean, well-equipped schools.

These principles and much more are from the pages of “The Common School Journal.”

The author was Horace Mann -- and the year was 1838.

Now we can ponder Mann’s ideas and believe our progress to have been slow.

Or we can look at this another way.

In Mann’s time, the task of improving society – even incrementally -- must have seemed enormous.

Lifespans were short. Technology was rudimentary.

A great portion of our economy was based on slavery. Imagine it.

Mann spent his later years here in Southwestern Ohio. His assessment of education was in many ways a dream. He knew the road would be long and difficult – and that he would not see his dreams fully realized.

Yet it seems as if he spent every waking hour fighting the good fight. He did his share – and more.
He wrote of “the sacred cause of education,” calling it “the great equalizer” and “the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

More than a century later Doctor Martin Luther King Junior spoke of “the arc of history bending toward justice.” That’s such a positive ideal – and I believe it to be true. But Doctor King never thought the pursuit of justice would be easy, or without setbacks.

As with justice, the arc of history will bend toward improvements in education. But we have to will that to happen -- and then work for it to happen.

You are doing just that. You will make strides these next two days in that direction.

And then you will spread your knowledge among your colleagues when you get back home.

Social studies teachers don’t shirk from their responsibilities – even when the topics are difficult – or when the going gets tough politically. You know all about that.

Since I’ve been quoting from our nation’s past, I’ll offer this – from Abigail Adams:

“Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought for with ardor and diligence.”
That means working at it every day – and working in groups and sharing information.

It also means the students have to work. That’s tough. For that to happen, you have to motivate them while you’re motivating yourselves.

It means presenting the issues in ways that stir emotions and commitment.

That’s what we in the legal community are trying to do with our initiative on fines, fees and bail, and so many other areas of access to justice.

In that spirit of working together and sharing, I want to let you know that the Supreme Court of Ohio has been engaged for many years in Civic Education, and we’re committed to “upping our game” in the next few years.

One of our Court departments is called Civic Education and we have museum-quality exhibits on the ground floor of our building explaining our judicial system.

The stories of Ohio courts and the men and women who shaped them unfold in our Visitor Education Center.

We host 13,000 students each year from around the state, and we subsidize the bus travel of many schools.

The interactive exhibits, bold graphics and video clips are designed to engage students -- as young as fourth graders -- on a journey through landmark court cases and legal issues.

They even get a chance to hold a mock trial session and sit in as judges, attorneys and jurors.

Our next step is to reach out more to teachers and to schools – to go to them – with visits and materials.

We have a booth here today where you can see some of the materials we’ve designed and some which are a collaboration with the National Center for State Courts.

Our Justice Case Files, which have the look of comic books and come with lesson plans specific to Ohio’s Learning Standards, have been especially well-received in many Ohio school districts.

Twice a year, the seven justices of our Court pack up and take our oral argument sessions on the road.

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of what we call Offsite Court.

The oral argument sessions are held at a local high school and students from nearby schools – usually juniors and seniors from various social studies classes – are invited.

Three cases are presented and each case has a different student audience.

Once a group hears the two sides present their cases, they depart for a conference room and ask questions of the attorneys for each side.

In the two weeks leading up to Offsite Court, local attorneys visit the high schools and work with teachers to prepare students for the cases they will observe.

Several weeks before Offsite Court, our Public Information Office sends teachers background materials on the cases – giving the teachers and students time to discuss the issues and get ready for the day when the justices come to town – and they can get involved by quizzing the attorneys.

It’s one of many ways we are trying to help teachers stretch educational resources by getting our institution involved with schools.

I see that the titles of several seminars here reflect a sense of humor. So I’ll close not with Doctor King or Horace Mann or Abigail Adams, but with the late comic George Carlin.

He once observed:

“When Thomas Edison worked late into the night on the electric light, he had to do it by gas lamp or candle. I’m sure it made the work seem that much more urgent.”

Well, our work certainly is urgent. And we do have to toil often in the shadows of ignorance and obstinacy.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the light.

But believe me, it’s there.

Our mission is noble. And despite the present-day obstacles of a funding problems, a distracted public, fake news and the challenges faced by students and families, I believe many of the answers reside in our schools – in support for our schools and support for our teachers.

We have to step up as a society and give teachers and schools the support they need – and deserve.

May you have a successful conference and, again, thank you for inviting me – and thank you for your efforts to help America by engaging students, their parents and their communities.

May God Bless.