Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Putnam County Off-Site Court
April 11, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Wednesday, April 11, 2018, at Ottawa-Glandorf High School.)

WEDNESDAY MORNING STUDENT Q & A

Good morning, students, teachers, staff and guests, including attorneys and judges.

I’m Maureen O’Connor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Thank you for inviting the Supreme Court here today. I believe you will find the three cases you will hear quite interesting.

I’m impressed that Putnam County has nine high schools and all of them are represented today.

I noticed that here at Ottawa-Glandorf, the gymnasium is called the “Supreme Court.” It’s obvious that someone had a sense of humor.  While many an exciting contest has taken place on this court, I hope that you find the legal contests of today as attention getting.

Time is limited so I’m going to proceed with the introductions of my colleagues in order of seniority, and get right to the Q & A.

I am the 10th chief justice in Ohio and the first woman to have this honor. I was elected in 2016 to my second six-year term. I was a Justice starting in 2003, after serving as a magistrate, a trial judge, a prosecuting attorney, then lieutenant governor and director of the Department of Public Safety.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell served on the Eighth District Court of Appeals and the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland before his appointment to the Supreme Court in 2003.

Justice Sharon Kennedy was elected in 2012 and then to her first full term in 2014. Previously, she served on the Butler County Domestic Relations Court, in Hamilton, north of Cincinnati.

Justice Judith French was appointed to the Court by Gov. Kasich in 2012 and elected to her first full term in 2014 and before that she was a judge on the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Columbus.

Justice Pat Fischer became a Justice last year. He served on the First District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, the Court of Common Pleas and on city council.

Justice Pat DeWine also started his term last year and he also comes from the First District Court of Appeals.

The newest member of our court, Justice Mary DeGenaro was appointed by Governor John Kasich in January of this year. She served on the Seventh District Court of Appeals in Youngstown.

I want to mention that this will be the last Off-Site Court session for Justice O’Donnell, who will be retiring from the Court in December after more than 15 years of service on our bench. Thank you, Justice O’Donnell.

With that, we’ll turn it over to you. Who has the first question?

WEDNESDAY ORAL ARGUMENTS INTRODUCTION

Good morning.

We are delighted to be in Ottawa for today’s oral arguments. This is the first time that our Off-Site Court program has visited Putnam County.

As our viewers have probably noticed, we are not in our Courtroom in Columbus. We are holding oral arguments today in the auditorium at Ottawa-Glandorf High School.

Today, we mark the 75th Off-Site Court session since the program’s inception in 1987.

Our purpose is to provide students and community members with an up-close look at a Supreme Court session and to help them learn more about our judicial system.

This program began in courthouses but we moved our sessions to high schools so that students, teachers, and more members of the public could take part.

Holding oral arguments and inviting all nine high schools from Putnam County fulfills that goal.

Next spring, we will take Off-Site Court to Ashtabula County.

I want to say thank-you to Ottawa-Glandorf Superintendent Don Horstman and the principal, Doctor Jayson Selgo, for making arrangements for our temporary courtroom.

I also want to thank the superintendents, principals, and staff from all Putnam County high schools for lending us their students, and to the teachers for engaging with them about the cases we will hear.  The visiting high schools are:

Thanks as well to:

Putnam County Probate Judge Michael Borer, Common Pleas Court Judge Keith Schierloh, and Municipal Court Chad Niese for helping plan and prepare for our visit.

Putnam County is served by the Third District Court of Appeals in Lima and I would like to acknowledge its judges:

Judge Vernon Preston, Judge Stephen Shaw, Judge John Willamowski, and Judge William Zimmermann.

I also want to acknowledge the support of the Putnam County Bar Association.

Welcome students and the Putnam County community to our Court.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON LUNCHEON REMARKS

Thank you, Judge Borer, for that introduction and for your court’s invitation to host the Supreme Court here.

And thank-you, Olivia (Nunez) for your inspiring words.

Off-Site Court is one of the most important endeavors of the Supreme Court of Ohio and many thanks are in order.

First, we are grateful to members of the Putnam County school community for overseeing all the arrangements associated with our temporary takeover of the auditorium this morning.

They include:

Ottawa-Glandorf Local Schools Superintendent Don Horstman and Principal Dr. Jayson Selgo.

We also have had outstanding support from local law enforcement, who provided security for this event. This includes:

Ottawa Police Chief Richard Knowlton, School Resource Officer Jake Macke, Putnam County Sheriff Brian Siefker, and Sheriff’s Sergeant H.B. Nelson.

... and Lieutenant Timothy Grigsby of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

I also want to recognize three staffers from the Supreme Court:

Civic Education Manager Sara Stiffler, the marshal of the Court, Bill Crawford, and Security Services Coordinator Ryan Fahle for all their work in making this visit go smoothly.

I also want to acknowledge two of our Third District Court of Appeals judges who are with us today Judge John Willamowski and Judge William Zimmermann.

Our partners at Ohio Government Television deserve recognition for ensuring that the broadcast of oral arguments went off without a hitch.

All of our oral argument sessions, including Off-Site Court sessions, are broadcast live and archived on ohiochannel.org. So, you can enjoy this morning’s proceedings for many years to come.

I found Olivia’s (Nunez) speech inspiring, not only for her thoughts but for the example she sets. Young people around the country are becoming an inspiration for all of us and truly are the hope of not only tomorrow but of today, the here and now.  

So, thank-you again, Olivia.

And, thank-you, Ms. Meyer, for your dedication to teaching. I’m sure you have many more students like Olivia who are striving to be the best they can be. I certainly hope so. The future of this country depends on their actions and vision.

I’m also of the opinion that we don’t say thank-you often enough to teachers. So (to Ms. Meyer), please tell your colleagues across the county that we thank all of them as well.

My thanks extends also to Skyler Mayberry, the owner of the Axe Handle, who teaches civics at the high school in Columbus Grove.  I must say, you could also teach culinary arts.

I know that Putnam County’s high schools are proud of their sports, so I’ll quote a legendary basketball coach, John Wooden of UCLA, who said:

“Young people need models, not critics.”

Yes, those of us in public life need to be models for those who will succeed us.

Each of us, in our professions, has a responsibility to be a role model – like a good teacher -- and to get involved in mentoring whenever we have the opportunity.

And we should understand that teaching and mentoring are two-way streets. We should be teaching young people ... AND listening to them.

We refer to Off-Site Court as “taking our robes on the road.”

Each time we do, we make a bit of history. And I make it a point to delve into local history when I speak to our host communities.

I’ve been brushing up a bit on Putnam County and I’ve come across some interesting details, such as the fact that one of our Supreme Court Justices – Arthur Hiram Day, who served on the court for one term beginning in 1935 – was born not far from here, in Pandora.

Another bit of your history relates to education. Before I talk about that I need to make you aware that our Civic Education Section at the Court is in charge of law-focused educational displays and programs as well as tours of our historic building.

Ohio teachers love to bring their students to our beautiful Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center and the education section. We set up mock trials with students taking part. We subsidize bus travel for these trips. As best we can, we also coordinate with the Statehouse and their tour program.

But doing all that is not enough. We are also focusing more and more on bringing civics education to Ohio’s communities. We’re doing this through Off-Site Court, yes, but also by reaching out to the schools with teaching materials. We are working on expanding this program in the coming years.

I found out that Putnam County was home to at least two world-class educational innovators.

One was Frances Horwich, who was born in Ottawa in 1907 and who had earned childhood-teaching credentials and a doctorate when a major technological change occurred: television.

Frances Horwich became TV’s “Miss Frances” in the early 1950s, and she was as innovative as TV itself.

She designed her show, “Ding Dong School,” with a nursery school point of view. The cameras were set so that children sitting on the floor at home would have a school-like perspective of the set. Her props were simple. She spoke simply to the kids. At the end of each show she would tell the kiddies to go get their parents. The cameras would adjust and Miss Frances would deliver parenting tips to adults across America.

Miss Frances won a Peabody Award in Year One and the show stayed on the air through the mid-1960s, laying the groundwork for “Mister Rogers” and other shows.

Like many innovators, her ideas originally were met with resistance. She was working within a new technology – yet she broke new ground in a positive way.

Another Putnam County innovator was James Cloyd Bowman from Leipsic, a college English teacher and author of children’s books.

His most famous book was “Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time,” which won many awards when it came out in 1938, including the highest honor a children’s book can attain – a Newbery.

It’s worth noting that Miss Frances and James Bowman made learning fun and exciting.

I point out these educators because commitments like theirs, to nourishing young minds, shouldn’t be forgotten. They should be remembered, emulated and built upon. Childhood education should be more than a good deed for us. It must be a mission.

No one can conduct research on Putnam County and not come away with a lot of information about the Great Black Swamp.

This diagonal, Everlgades-size swath of wetlands, grasslands and forests stretching from Lake Erie to Indiana – 25 miles wide and 100 miles long – was the last piece of unsettled land in Ohio.

That’s until your forebears did something that politicians only pledge to do. They drained the swamp. Beginning in the 1840s, it took them 80 years. That seems slow, but it might be a speed record if politicians actually did it.

Your beautiful current – and fourth -- county courthouse was labeled in the 1980s by former Judge Randall Basinger as the “Gem in the Black Swamp.” Well, the swamp may be mostly gone, but the gem remains.

I’ve noticed that many businesses in the surrounding counties have reached back into history and put “Black Swamp” into their names. Good for them. Life was rough way back then and the toils of the past shouldn’t be forgotten.

Everyone seems to know that Putnam County was named for Israel Putnam, George Washington’s second-in-command. What you might not know is that three of the first early settlers met in a log cabin in 1834 and formed the Putnam County Common Pleas Court, in Kalida.

Keep in mind, these men were not judges – or even lawyers. But they knew that in order for their settlement to have a future there had to be the Rule of Law.

It was such an American thing to do. Remember, our republic was younger, then, than most of us sitting in this room, and democracy was not widespread in the world.

The first recorded journal entry of this court showed that resident Isaac McHenry would receive his pension from the Revolutionary War. How fitting.

Some court procedures then did not stand the test of time, or maybe the Constitution, and had to be abandoned.

For example, One form of punishment carried out in the 1830s was this:

A person found guilty of a crime who failed to pay a fine was subject to being dragged down the courthouse stairs by his feet as fast as his captors could navigate the steps.

There doesn’t seem to be a record of the effectiveness of that penalty.

I should add that the earlier courthouses had fewer steps than the current one.

Also in the 1800s, a Judge Long wrote about tales from the courtroom, including one about a fellow judge who had to adjourn court when broken chairs and law books were, quote, “utilized as missiles and a bloody conflict was imminent.”

A fairly famous judge who rode the circuit in northwestern Ohio and convened court in Kalida was Andrew Coffinberry.

He also taught school and was known for great attention to his clothing – a blue spiked-tailed coat with brass buttons, a, quote, “buff waistcoat and trousers, ruffled shirt and silk stockings.” His manner of dress earned him the monicker, Count Coffinberry.

The historian Marguerite Calvin wrote that Coffinberry “when he was about to annihilate a pompous witness or a fellow lawyer ... had a trick of emphasizing a point by elevating his nose to a 45-degree angle, and seemingly addressing the ceiling of the courtroom.”

There’s not a lot written about Judge Coffinberry’s work, but he apparently was able to show a lack of bias in public service. Before he was a judge he was a justice of the peace, and the first process   he served was against his brother, George, for chopping down a tree on Sunday.

One time, as his party was traversing the thick and dark forest on their way to Putnam County from Findlay, one of the horses “nosed over a bee hive, causing a small panic” among the men and animals.

The horses bolted away with the judge and his party chasing them – with personal articles – and I quote -- “strung along the way” through the marshy soil “including the entire law library of the northwest counties, slightly the worse for mud.”

I also learned that Putnam County was on the cutting edge of courthouse engineering.    
In 1912, construction began on your current courthouse. It included a novelty: an elevator propelled by an electric motor. 

The local newspaper commented that, quote, “most farmers are afraid of this new-fangled way of going upstairs.”

Still quoting here: “They don’t mind it going up, but the sensation that comes over them when the thing starts down makes them catch their breath, grab their hat, and wish they had walked.”

With that, turn over the program to my colleagues, starting with Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

This concludes our Off-Site Court program.

Before I turn it over to Judge Borer for his wrap-up, I want to thank you once again for your hospitality. We hope to return the favor by having you visit our beautiful Court building in downtown Columbus. You are always welcome and you’ll never forget the tour.

God bless.