Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Government in Action
Feb. 13, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center Native American Lobby)

Good afternoon everyone and welcome. Thank you, Kate, for that introduction.

I hope you found the oral arguments this morning informative.

In the end, as a Court, we agree many times to disagree. But our country’s founders understood that a democracy functions best with many voices. Madison called government “the greatest of all reflections of human nature.”

That was the optimistic James Madison speaking. He also understood the sobering side ... the fragile nature ... of American self-government, and how we must agree to the basics, including the rule of law, to make it all work.

This is where you come in, as civics teachers. The good news is that you are dedicated to our children and by being so dedicated you teach and thus preserve the original concepts that are the foundation of our Constitution.

Madison also said this: “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

“Well-instructed,” indeed! Teachers, the pressure is on…like never before in my lifetime, anyway.

This is a crucial time for our country, and for you. Madison viewed civic instruction as a kind of keystone to our society. But where is our collective understanding of good government heading?

Just read the newspaper, turn on the news, and you will see the basics of our democracy chipping away.

It is our new reality.

One of the biggest dangers that I see is a campaign that seeks to undermine our free press.

Free and viable news organizations are vital to our civics education.

Look no further than a few of our government scandals to see how important a free press can be.

In the 1950s, the press monitored Senator McCarthy’s Communist investigations, helping to put an end to his witch hunt on undeserving Americans.

The timeline went like this: The press acted ... the public understood ... and then individual members of our government found the courage to act.

Remember, that “third-rate burglary” in 1972? Watergate turned out to be far more than that, thanks initially to journalistic digging and then thanks to a justice system that functioned well, even though a presidency was at stake. It was a hard time for our country, but we survived it.

And how about the Famed Pentagon Papers.  The newspapers of this country exposed the deceit of the American public that spanned 4 presidencies. That deceit resulted on 50 thousand American casualties and millions to both the Viet Cong and the S. Vietnamese forces and the countries civilian men women and children. 

Fortunately the courts sided with open release of the papers Afterwards the people’s trust of their government institutions has rightfully weakened.

The press has always served as the voice of the people, keeping government accountable.

The work of the press complements civic education. So much so, in fact, that I don’t believe they can function properly without each other.

So, the second danger I see is a growing population of Americans who do not care about government, or how it should work.

This is where I see you as soldiers on the front lines. This  widespread lack of caring – a lack of curiosity in many cases – is affecting our ability to govern ourselves.

This is not a partisan issue.  It is vital to the future of our democracy.

If students don’t know, don’t care, or become misinformed, they will be easily be swayed by the forces of evil.

I am not being an alarmist. It’s real.

As history will tell you, the evil forces in Nazi Germany used diversion tactics and distraction techniques to persuade Germans of the validity of their policies and deadly practices.  Do you know that all areas of German government were complicit?  According to a lecture series, How the Court’s failed Germany, only one judge out of hundreds resigned rather than apply the law as promulgated by the Nazi’s.

An endless stream of dumbed-down slogans were used to drum up ethonocentric passions, putting emotions before logic and reason, all the while manipulating the media.

That’s the danger.

What is the solution? There are many.

The judicial branch must do its part to ensure access to justice, and fair justice for all.

But I believe a big part of the solution is in the hands of teachers like you.

If you teach government and history, you have the power to spark interest.

Interest and passion doesn’t just stick with students for a school year. I know firsthand how learning government and history can provide a lifelong interest in students.

That spark can be a Court field trip. It be about personalizing  Ohio history in a way that brings it alive.

It’s about creating a sense of relevance, not for a test, but for life.

I applaud your commitment to civic education.

Thank you again for helping students understand this new world we live in.

I will leave you with two more observations from President Madison:

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

And this: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

You are all leaders in these important times.

We need you today more than ever.

You are appreciated.

Thank you for your commitment. Let’s keep working together.

God Bless.