Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Specialized Dockets 2018 Annual Conference
Oct. 11, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, at the Ohio Union at the Ohio State University.)

Thank you, Judge (James) Shriver, for that introduction.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our 14th Supreme Court of Ohio Specialized Dockets conference.

The agenda for this conference impressive. I’ve said that before, at previous conferences. But I must say it again.

I want to thank the chair of the Commission on Specialized Dockets, Judge Theresa Dellick of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, Juvenile Division.

Thanks are in order, too, for the vice chair, Judge Shriver, of course, who serves the Common Pleas Court of Clermont County, Juvenile Division. And I want to thank the 20 judges, magistrates and administrators who make up our dedicated commission.

Thanks also to the Specialized Dockets Section of the Supreme Court of Ohio, managed by Monica Kagey and assisted by Sarah Jeu and thanks to our director of the Office of Court Services, Stephanie Graubner Nelson.

We, in Ohio, are pioneers in specialized dockets. Our work has been progressing for more than two decades. This conference is moving forward because the work you’re doing is expanding ... moving into new areas ... and we’re learning more as science and medicine discover more information, more data ... and more successful evidence-based practices to address the needs of the people who come into contact with the justice system.

The conference – and more important, your work– is getting better because you have been building on prior years of knowledge and experience. You have scored successes and you have learned from failures.

You have been sharing experiences with each other.

I can’t emphasize enough how pleased I am with the collegiality of this group here today – and with the way all of our courts network together every day. You are truly a team ... and a big team.

We now have 244 specialized dockets courts across 61 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

The seminar booklets on the tables in front of you read like a graduate school catalogue ... like the ones you would find here on this large campus.

In a way, specialized dockets courts share a mission with grad schools – to dive deeper into issues, grapple with topics that are changing in real time, and formulate solutions.

 Unlike some academic subjects, your areas of expertise have a human face. You are working at the cutting edges of society. For the most part, these are the cutting edges of social ills and pathologies.

Don’t think for a minute that I don’t understand and appreciate the work that you do.

I truly do. Specialized dockets are becoming, increasingly, the new face of judicial administration in our society.

And Ohio is – without a doubt – the national leader in the realm of specialized dockets. Because of you, I believe that leadership will continue.

I also believe that – because we are leaders – we will continue to share our knowledge and experiences ... not only with each other, but with courts around the country.

We’ve become both a laboratory and a clinic. We test theories. We seek best practices. We apply our knowledge and experience for the benefit of our citizenry.

Ohio’s leadership can be expressed in many ways ... far too many ways to point out in my limited time before you today.

But I do want to describe for you some extraordinary efforts that have been made around the state recently in specialized dockets:

The veterans’ treatment courts in Summit County and Akron ... in Stark County and Canton ... and in Cuyahoga County and Cleveland ... submitted a joint application to Justice for Vets for an “Operational Tune Up” that took place for two full days this past summer. It included learning the latest best practices in programming. These courts engaged in revising policies and practices relating to incentives and sanctions. They targeted populations, the art of supervision, and drug testing. And they received an update on the pertinent case law.

I want to thank Judges Michael Jackson of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas ...

Judge Charles Patton of Cleveland Municipal Court ...

Judge Taryn Heath of Stark County Common Pleas ...

Judge Gerald Larson of Akron Municipal Court ...

... and Judge Amy Corrigall Jones of Summit County Common Pleas Court.

Each of these judges is working hard to improve life for the veterans who come home to the nation they served.

In western Ohio, in Logan County, Family Court Judge Dan Bratka in Bellefontaine and treatment administrator Annette Deao gained special recognition from the American Bar Association’s Center for Children and the Law. Among their successes is a program graduate who is now a peer recovery coach. This is a father who was an addict but who, through the carrot and stick model of rewards and legal consequences, was able to recover from addiction and regain custody of his two autistic sons. He credited the Family Court for his recovery, and then he took his story further by helping others.

In southeastern Ohio, Judge Fred Moses in Hocking County Municipal Court has worked with treatment providers to secure funds for the use of the Bridge pain-treatment device to assist clients experiencing withdrawal. Judge Moses has made great strides in his drug court.

Judge Terre Vandervoort and Magistrate Michelle Edgar are working collaboratively ... and innovatively ... not far from here in Fairfield County Probate-Juvenile Court. Their child services agency provides a pre-filing intervention program for families affected by substance use disorders.

At the top of our state, the Seneca County Unified Drug Court and Judges Mark Repp, Michael Kelbley, and Steve Shuff operate a program called PIVOT, which stands for Participating in Victory of Transition.

PIVOT is a multi-jurisdictional adult drug court. House Bill 354 established a pilot program that consolidates certain drug court proceedings for the Tiffin-Fostoria Municipal Court and the Seneca County Court of Common Pleas. This is an innovative solution.

Another innovative approach is SSIP. That stands for Statewide System Improvement Program.

SSIP is funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

It’s a collaboration that expands the capacity of our family dependency treatment courts. SSIP is increasing service to all families in the child welfare system affected by parental substance use disorders.

Here in Columbus, a Franklin County Family Drug Court parent volunteer, Babette Feibel, won the Everyday Hero Award from the Columbus Dispatch, along with Judge Domestic Relations/Juvenile Court Judge Dana Preisse and Magistrate Susan House, who oversees the docket and who also sits on our Specialized Docket Commission.

These are just a few examples of the great work going on in our state.

It takes a special court to do these things. In fact, it also takes a special kind of judge, magistrate, administrator and staff member to reach these heights and serve our communities.

So, again, I say, good work ... and thank you.

In case you’re wondering whether I have any frustrations when it comes to specialized dockets ... the answer is yes.

Since this conference was convened in this room a year ago, we had added several dozen specialized dockets courts.

Today, we have 244 specialized docket courts overall and of those, way more than half ‒ 170 ‒ are drug courts. But in reality, don’t most if not all of our specialized docket courts encounter substance abuse as a root cause of the need for intervention?

My frustration is that your good work, your rising levels of achievement in this very difficult area of human endeavor, is not as widely known as it should be.

Your work isn’t as appreciated ... and understood ... as it should be.

When I point out this lack of knowledge, yes, I’m talking about the average Ohioan. But I’m also talking about community leaders and professionals who work in and around the justice system.

They are often in the dark, too.

This sad situation must be true. How else can we explain the emergence of Issue 1 on the fall ballot and the amount of money and backing that Issue 1 has piled up in a few short months?

If Ohioans – those in the citizenry and those in positions of leadership – truly understood what specialized dockets have accomplished – especially our drug courts – then Issue 1 wouldn’t exist.

Instead, we have to deal with this flawed and dangerous proposed constitutional amendment.

You and I must work to defeat it, lest its passage tear down the years of work you have invested to help the citizens of our state.

You have witnessed first-hand the destruction of families brought about by drug abuse, including the rapid rise in opiate use.

You’ve risen to the occasion ... helping fathers and mothers and children fight back by providing them a path to recovery.

Issue 1 would extinguish the lamps that you have lit to guide Ohioans out of the drug abuse world.

Your work – and their lives and futures – are at stake.

Early voting began yesterday (Wednesday, Oct. 10) and continues now for less than four weeks.

The clock is ticking and the amount of mis-information is rising.

I have explained how the Code of Professional Conduct permits ‒ and encourages ‒ judges to educate and speak about issues that affect the administration of justice. That duty applies not only to judges but all court professionals.

Judges are responding actively across the state. I have asked them to merely tell their stories ... talk about how drug courts function and how Issue 1, by taking away the stick of legal penalties, would also take away the carrot of recovery.

The stories I have asked them to tell are the stories that you have helped write, every day ... day in and day out.

In fact, next on the agenda this morning are participants from treatment courts around the state who will talk about their success.

We need you to speak out to defeat this proposal.

There are many aspects of the reform agenda that we can all agree upon. No judge wants to sentence a first-time, low-level drug addict to prison for possession. Treatment instead of incarceration is always the way to go for those addicts.

We also agree about the need for more drug courts and more treatment facilities.

Yet, drug courts will be greatly diminished if this issue passes.

Who would agree to go through a year of drug court if all they are facing is a misdemeanor charge?
Drug courts are the most powerful tool in dealing with an addicted substance abuser – and you have proven this to be true, through your hard work.

An addict on probation with the threat of jail or even prison will be a person, more likely than not, who will stick with the program.

Who knows better than the people in this room the destruction of families, the loss of lives, the violence and personal loss that is part of the opiate crisis and drug abuse in general?

Who knows better than you how recovery works? How the intricacies of daily life for a veteran, a parent, a child can work for or against a plan of recovery?

When we talk about drug courts and other special courts in Ohio, we’re talking about years of work and knowledge.

All that we have built, and you have worked on, is at risk with Issue 1.

Issue 1 would put not only non-violent inmates back on the streets, but also every level of violent felon, except murder, rape, and child molestation.

It would ties the hands of judges to deal with probationers who violate no-contact orders with victims ...

It would take away input from victims on release and restitution.

On its surface, Issue 1 looks progressive. It purports to help addicts by reducing drug possession penalties.

But it’s actually regressive and would impede the success of an addict when that person is involved with the criminal justice system.

And, as you’ve heard me and others say repeatedly, it would let people off with no jail time if caught with less than 20 grams of fentanyl. As you know, that’s enough to kill 10,000 people.

Proponents, when faced with this stark reality, say that any problems with Issue 1 can be fixed by statute.

That’s not how it works. This is a proposed constitutional amendment. It’s not a proposed statute. It would become a fixture in our state constitution, and a legislative road to fixing it wouldn’t exist.

It would take another constitutional amendment to amend or repeal this flawed proposal.

Proponents are wrong when they say Issue 1 is a way to deal with ‒ quote ‒ “small amounts” ‒ of drugs. I’ve seen it reported this way in news stories.

That’s wrong. And Issue 1 is wrong for our courts – and your work.

I want to thank you for all you have done to build up specialized dockets and create the tools we need to turn around the lives of Ohioans who need a responsive justice system.

And, please spread the word about how the programs, processes and tools that you have helped create are in danger on the ballot.

Specialized dockets are a proven success story. How else would you explain how Ohio is the recipient of more than $100 million in federal dollars to expand capacity for treatment?

We must continue to build on these successes – your successes.

Other states have reformed the treatment of low-level felony addicts and downsized their crimes to misdemeanors….but how they did it is the difference.

Only Ohio would have a constitutional amendment written in stone.

All the other states (12) use statutory changes and retained in the judiciary the ability to impose incarceration when appropriate.

So, let’s do all we can to make sure that our state – the state that has proven to be the leader in forward-thinking specialized dockets – doesn’t become the state that throws away years of sweat and toil and progress by passing a flawed measure that inflicts a death blow to our drug courts.

Let’s do two things: Let’s defeat Issue 1 ... and then let’s agree to work on raising the public profiles of specialized dockets courts.

Many of you have done a very nice job with your local news media ... and with talks at service clubs and schools. We need more efforts like that.

In one sense, the fact that good publicity and public knowledge remains low isn’t surprising. You have been for all intents and purposes, a rapid response team. It takes time for perception to catch up with reality.

But let’s resolve to catch up. It’s time for public perception to reach the level of reality – the world that you live in ... and work in ... every day.

Once again, thanks to all of you.

Have a great conference.

Continue to learn and to share.

And may God Bless.