Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Rhodes State College 2018 Commencement
May 5, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on May 5, 2018, at the Veterans Memorial in Lima, Ohio.)

President McCurdy ...

Chairman Ellis (Dr. Wilfred Ellis of the board of trustees) ...

Faculty, staff, family and friends ... and graduates ... It is an honor to be with you today.

Thank you, Dr. McCurdy, for that kind introduction.

I am privileged to be here as your commencement speaker for the class of 2018.

Graduates, this is a very exciting time for you, and I want to say ... Congratulations!

You have worked very hard to be here – to make it to this important finish line. It’s not your last finish line, but it’s an extremely important one and you should enjoy this day.

You’ve completed classes that you loved….and perhaps others, not so much.

In the end, you studied ... you made a commitment ... you invested your talents, you developed new abilities, and now you are here today.

You should be proud of yourselves.

Your parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, family members and friends should be proud of you, too!

To those of you who came here to make a career change, you may have a spouse or children to thank for the time you’ve invested in your future, and theirs.

You should be proud of and grateful to all the people who supported your efforts to reach this milestone.  

That includes the faculty and staff of Rhodes State College.

They believe in you.

As I stand here on this day, I must say that you and I have something in common.

It’s not your accomplishment, as great as it is.

And it’s not the ideas I’m about to give you.

It’s something far simpler.

We are all wearing robes.

In my case, wearing a robe is a job requirement.

You probably know at least a little bit about what I do, just from my job title.

That’s fine, many people don’t know the whole scope.

Even my kids and grandchildren have   questions.

I thank President McCurdy for the warm introduction, and her mentioning that I am the 10th chief justice in Ohio and the first woman to have this honor.

But I have to admit, I took a circuitous route to get here.

I was once in your shoes. At my college graduation, I felt that I had a pretty good idea about what I wanted to do with my life.

At the time, I wanted to be a teacher.

But while engaged in post-graduate work, I came to a conclusion that would change everything:

I really didn’t like kids enough to make their education my profession.

Encountering young folks in the classroom was something I was not cut out to do.

I like to say that thousands of children benefitted from that decision

I made a decision, and I had to reverse it. I could have looked upon this as a setback, but I didn’t.

So, don’t feel that at this stage in your life and age you need to have all the answers about your future.

There is no GPS for your correct path. Instead of looking down at your phone, you will have to raise your head and look around.

For me, I thought about being an attorney exactly three times in my life.

Once as a 6th grader... the second time was in high school ... and the third time came when I decided to change career paths.

It wasn’t easy. But I have no regrets.

I started out the practice of law representing, criminal defendants, parents in juvenile cases, heirs in probate matters and small local businesses. Then I received the first of several opportunities, when I was asked to become a magistrate in Summit County Probate Court.

It was not a job that I had planned on but it was a great job.  Helping those who could not help themselves.  I became a public servant ... and it fit.

For me, public service has been very rewarding. I like bringing about change that benefits people.

If you feel that you would like to give back to society, I encourage a career in public service.

The namesake of your school, the late Governor James A. Rhodes, is a prime example of how public service can change your city, county, and state ... and the lives of your neighbors.

Anyone who has traveled on an Ohio interstate highway, attended a state university or a two-year college like this one ... or a technical school or a vocational school ... Anyone who has flown to an airport in any of Ohio’s 88 counties, or visited a state historical site, has been served by the work and foresight of Jim Rhodes.

The governor faced many roadblocks, as you may.  Gov. Rhodes had to convince the legislature, the higher educational community and others that a variety of higher learning institutions is what will meet the needs of students and consequently the needs of all Ohioans.

The mission being carried out by President McCurdy, the staff – and you, the graduates – fits the needs of our state:

... Career degrees, transfer completion, workforce development training and business and industry consulting. You are receiving degrees in arts and sciences, business and technology, public service and health sciences.

All of these endeavors are necessary for you and for our state. But Jim Rhodes and other proponents of colleges like yours were met with resistance 50 years ago when this brand of education was merely a concept. They had to push – and prove.

I’m glad to say that he proof came about. By all measurements, Community-based higher education is working in Ohio.

There’s many stories about how Jim Rhodes handled uncertainty and roadblocks.

One morning, he awakened to a front-page news article about a Japanese automaker wishing to build a factory in America. The company wasn’t identified.

Governor Rhodes and his development director hopped a plane to Japan the very next day – not knowing which company was raising a trial balloon. They were literally flying blind.

Alone among America’s 50 governors, he followed up on that thin news article. The information was scant, but it was enough for a governor who already had a goal and had given it a name ... “jobs and progress.”

He and his aide visited several companies and discovered that only one was interested in U.S. production. They struck up a relationship.

This was the middle 1970s. Foreign investment in the United States was indeed a foreign concept. Like the idea of two-year colleges like this one, it was not the obvious, forward-looking endeavor that it is today. In fact, many people considered the pursuit of foreign investment to be a folly.

Not Jim Rhodes. The relationship he built was with a man named Honda and the rest is history – positive history for Ohio.

The governor was motivated to bring jobs here…and he followed his instincts and not someone else’s road map. In this case, he didn’t know where the road would lead. He just knew he was doing the right thing. That was enough to get him on his way.

Sometimes in life, you try to make grand plans and they don’t work out. Do you abandon your goals, or hang tough?

In the 1950s, Ford Motor Company embarked on a top-secret car project and Lima, Ohio, was a key player. This giant scheme was hyped coast to coast for two years by Ford’s publicists.

It was supposed to be so stupendous that it would be assembled in no fewer than five factories ... an unheard-of goal ... and a brand new plant here in Lima would produce the V-8 engine.

All of America waited eagerly. Finally, the big  announcement came, and the car was unveiled:

“Ladies and gentlemen ...  the 1958 Edsel!”

The hype turned sour quickly. Consumers laughed and looked away. For an entire generation, the word “Edsel” was synonymous with failure and flop.

But did Ford give up? Seven years later the company set sales records with another surprise car, the Mustang. The Lima plant produced a great engine, despite the fortunes of the Edsel, and the plant found a place at Ford. The Lima Engine Plant is still here 60 years later -- and recently was awarded a large investment.

You WILL have failures. You may even have a big one ... a personal Edsel.

Don’t be deterred.

Most of you will stumble on your way to a goal.  But the world doesn’t care how many times you fall, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.

Leaving school and entering the workforce, or the next phase of education, can be scary.

Develop fortitude. Hang in there with your hopes and dreams.

And do this: While pursuing your dreams of the right job and personal life, remember that you’re a citizen of this great country.

You have a duty to become an engaged and informed citizen of your community, your state, and America.

Appeals to active citizenship can be found in commencement speeches going back decades.

But I renew this call because I believe this: Never – at this place and time in our country’s journey -- has it been more important for our future leaders to practice the virtues of active, informed citizenship.

You must work at it. You have a duty to study and understand our system. You are the   nation’s future. Each one of you.

Citizenship takes many forms, but I believe that a transcendent one is our courts system.

Courts are on the forefront of shaping our society. In some cases, courts are working far ahead of the executive and legislative branches of our states and federal government.

In the few years since you enrolled in college, our nation has been faced with challenges to the rule of law.

You should understand that Americans, all human beings have rights by virtue of the fact that you are a human. Courts do not give you rights. The U.S. and Ohio constitutions recognize rights, they don’t confer rights. The role of the courts is to make sure that no one takes away those rights – from you or your fellow citizens.

Ensuring rights and the rule of law is an ongoing process. Like a muscle, rights must be exercised to keep their strength.

There are many areas where we are falling short in America. One example is that countless poor people are sent to jail because they cannot afford to pay the fines, fees and bail imposed on them. No one should be jailed because they are poor. The media has resurrected the term debtors’ prisons when referring to the practice of incarcerating people pretrial because of an inappropriate bail amount or post conviction as a consequence of inability to pay fines and fees.

In Ohio, we’ve been working hard to raise awareness of debtors’ prisons and eliminate the practice.

I’m proud to have led these efforts in Ohio – and now across America as president of the Conference of Chief Justices.

We’re working to eradicate debtors’ prisons by educating judges and court personnel about appropriate financial sanctions and obligations that courts can lawfully impose.

I’m proud that as a leader I could work on this issue collaboratively with other government officials to produce remedies such as model legislation and guides for judges.

There was a time when bail and fines and fees were unexamined.  For generations, Courts imposed these orders and no one batted an eye. I’m proud to say that that culture has changed ... it took courts to change the way courts imposed sanctions ... to move away from old practices and adhere to constitutional mandates.

Our governmental policies and procedures evolve as society does ... sometime courts are ahead of society.

The fact is of course, all government activities must be monitored for improvement. Vigilance is required.

I could go on, but let me say that for the rule of law to be upheld, it must be respected. No person, no matter his or her position in life, is above the law. No one.

That is the principle that holds together this nation of immigrants – a nation of diverse people and interests.

Adherence to the rule of law cannot be achieved without respect for the law.

The foundation of this respect is knowledge. You have a duty – you, the future leaders of our country – to take the time to understand how our government works – how it sometimes fails to work – and how the rule of law is the keystone holding our democracy together.

If you understand how our system is designed to work, you will not be taken in by false narratives.

It is up to you to reject those who push for a culture of confrontation … where truth is a victim… or, to score a point, to win the fight, anything goes ... and ignore history when the truth is inconvenient.

Is our democracy in jeopardy? I think we can all agree that our democratic institutions are being challenged.

Whether they are in jeopardy remains an open question. As graduates going out into the world, you are joining the millions of Americans who will decide the answer to that question.

Your answer may be a restoration of civility, compassion and kindness, I hope that it is. There also must be a heavy dose of knowledge.

Your Rhodes College instructors reminded you that learning these days, in your chosen profession, is a lifelong endeavor.

Likewise, learning to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable citizen is critical kind of lifelong learning. You are in charge of your own civic education. As an American, you have a duty to study and learn.

Sometimes, you may have to challenge the opinions of your friends and family. You certainly should challenge yourself, and your own assumptions, on a regular basis.

That is OK. Our democracy depends on people’s ability to make choices based on a free flow of ideas and information.

Times do change, and you will be part of that change.

There are more women graduates here than men today. That fact represents change.

The profession I chose remains mostly male.

But as I stand here as a representative of the Supreme Court of Ohio, women are in the Court majority, four to three.

For me, serving the public is an honor and a privilege.

Many of you here are planning a life in public service. For those of you who aren’t on that track, I ask that you follow missions and themes larger than yourself.

Engage in citizenship.

Columnist David Brooks recently posed the question: “What holds this nation together?”

His answer: “Despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment, to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind.”

That’s pretty lofty thinking – but, as Americans, we should aspire to lofty aspirations for our society and for our democracy.

Today is a day to think lofty thoughts. Tomorrow is day to start following through, for yourselves and for our country.

For the class of 2018, I wish you joy.

Develop your own compass and trust it ... even when you don’t know exactly where your passion will lead you.

When you fail, take stock and try again. Believe in yourself.

I am an optimist and I believe this is a time for hope and possibilities, even in those dark corners of the nation and world where the light of freedom isn’t shining brightly, or at all.  

You can be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your life.

Think of others. Be a studious citizen. Take risks and dare to fail. Your coming years will be times of great possibility.

Thank you, graduates of 2018.

Congratulations ... and God Bless.