Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Conference of Court Public Information Officers (CCPIO) Annual Meeting Opening Remarks
Aug. 5, 2019

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, at the Historic Cuyahoga County Courthouse)

Thank you, Judge Russo.

Good morning, everyone. I understand that we have attendees from Canada, Ukraine, Albania as well as US PIOs.  

Welcome to Cleveland.

I’m Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. It’s a pleasure to be here.

The last time this group came to Ohio was 12 years ago.

You were hosted at the Supreme Court in Columbus. I was a Justice then. Chris Davey was the head of PIO, and I remember that one of the activities he set up involved kayaking on the river on whose shore our building sits.

And now you’re on the shore of beautiful Lake Erie. I hope that you have a hotel room that overlooks the lake. Watching the sail boats on the lake is magnificent. If you can arrange a ride on a sail boat even better.

As for Chris, he left Court – paddled a few miles up the Olantangey  River.

And is PIO working for The Ohio State University.

The Supreme Court’s connections to Cleveland have always been strong.

I was raised in Cuyahoga County and I spend a lot of time in Cleveland. While it’s not my hometown, Washington DC is, I love here. The cultural diversity, the restaurants, the architecture, the cultural venues, a world class orchestra, art museum and a place I know like the back of my hand thanks to my 6 grandchildren, the Natural History Museum are second to none. The excellent sports teams, basketball, baseball, football, all offer exciting seasons and the real prospect for championships.  If you’re into football, you will undoubtedly have heard of our new dynamic duo: Baker Baker Touchdown Maker Mayfield and Odell Beckham ... stay tuned!

Our health care systems and colleges and universities ensure a quality of life found in very few other places.

Our two newest justices, elected last year, served on the bench in this county.

Justice Michael Donnelly was a judge on the Common Pleas Court, and Justice Melody Stewart served in this grand building, on the Eighth District Court of Appeals.

Twenty of the 161 justices since 1803 came to our Supreme Court from Cuyahoga County.

One justice of particular note served on the bench in Cleveland in 1920 and became a justice on our court for eleven years, 1923 to 1934. Her name was Florence Allen.

Florence Allen was the first female justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio. In fact, she was the first   woman to be elected to any court in the country in 1920 and the first to serve on any state supreme court.

In 1934, Justice Allen went on to become the first woman to serve as a judge in the federal court system when she was appointed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Eleven women followed Florence Allen to our bench in Columbus. When I was elected as a justice and took office in 2011, we had the first ever female majority on the state’s highest court. And that is the current case as well.

I have the honor of being the first woman Chief Justice in Ohio ... elected in 2010 ... only took 207 years but who’s counting.

We’ve broken down many barriers over the years in the Ohio court system.

We’re proud of that. And yet, there are many more challenges to take on.

Our list of “works in progress” is large and daunting, but the Court and staff are up to it.

Courts have always been a centerpiece of our democracy. The American way of justice has always been foundational to defining how our society functions, and that sets us apart from most other nations.

As we evolve, our justice system does too. While the mission of public service remains, courts today are very different from the courts of even 30 years ago. They have always been active places.  But now courts – through our work in response to society’s needs – have become pro-active places. It’s not just about trials day in a day out. Courts have become agents of change ... change that occurs because courts are the branch of government that people have the most faith in. If not courts, then who?

Communications is central to explaining that – and to helping staff and judges succeed in their changing roles and messaging. And it’s a challenge.

Since all of you are professional communicators, I don’t have to tell you how jumbled and fractured the media landscape is today.

It’s difficult to operate in an environment that includes fake news and alternative facts – and do it while the structure of the mainstream news media is contracting.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to communicating with the public is the amount of information – and disinformation – that is out there.

In 1970, the book “Future Shock” was a best-seller. The author, Alvin Toffler, defined the term to mean a personal perception of ‘too much change in too short a period of time’ and he coined the term “information overload.” It was an accurate prediction. But the situation today may be far worse than he imagined.

Countless people are stuck in their own information bubbles. Their information comes to them, not from impartial news reporting facts and objective analysis but from sources with a mission to ‘inform’ through the lens of a philosophy, political belief, and bias. And it’s all labeled the be the ‘truth’

And the time to sort it all out isn’t expanding. Just the opposite.  This is the arena in which you work.

Yet, our Court has found a way to create some recent successes – major ones – in communications with the public.

Let me give you an example. Last year, an attempt at lessening drug penalties through a constitutional amendment threatened the existence of our 180 drug courts among other negative effects.

The goal was presented in a positive way, but the true nature of the amendment would have been extremely detrimental to the treatment of addiction in our state and actually fostered an acceptance of drug possession as ‘no big deal’  

I became alarmed when I learned that in August of 2018, the amendment was passing by 65% in the polls. I decided that the only way to fight this thing was to mobilize our judiciary to speak out. It had never been done before.

Although some judges were a little unnerved at first and I receive a lot of criticism from the uninformed who accused me of violating judicial ethics ... we persevered. Contrary to those saying judges should be muzzled and not speak out in public,In fact our ethics rules for judges in Ohio clearly allow this. I consider speaking out a duty when proposed laws or constitutional amendment affect the administration of justice.  And last year our judicial system was at risk.

But this was a seldom-used tool. Few judges had done what I was asking them to do – which was a deep explanation of the flaws of a ballot proposal to their communities.

Opponents of the measure raised $1 million to campaign against it and the proponents had something like $17 million from out-of-state forces that wanted to plant their flag in Ohio.

But we had the secret weapon ... the judiciary, every judge in the state was asked to speak locally and explain a very difficult subject – the justice system and the workings of drug courts.

I visited nearly every TV station in the state and all the major newspapers. I wrote op ed pieces as did many judges. I appeared on public forums as did many judges.  I did not ask the judges to do anything that I did not do myself.

Key to the effort was an army of magistrates and judges. They jumped into action.

Some days I would talk myself hoarse with journalists only to come home, put on the TV and see an expensive ad promoting this terrible ballot measure.

I had my doubts about whether we would succeed. But in the end, my faith in communications was restored.

Judicial communication – community relations, the active support of the OSBA, the business communities, the treatment communities, etc.-- won out over campaign dollars. The proposal was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin and it lost in 86 of our 88 counties.

So Yes, information overload and less than accurate information are there. But the old method of doing something big and getting people to pay attention still works, if you do it correctly.

Having weighty topics helps when you’re trying to get through the information haze.

We have no shortage of story content when it comes to Ohio courts, and I doubt that you have a shortage in your states or provinces, either.

They are stories generated by government employees, public servants, hard at work, and stories about the citizens who are struggling, and often succeeding because of the courts.  

There’s no lack of material for communicators.

The problem is finding ways to get the stories out there.

Being short on money and/or staff is not a reason to give up and not mount an effort – you can think about ways to empower your local courts and build coalitions as we did.

No matter how we do it, we need to reach out.

We need to educate the public as a way to build and maintain support for courts. We need to show that we are dealing with the problems that society hands us.

It takes more than a village to get this job done. It takes a legislature. It takes an executive branch. It takes law enforcement. It takes engagement with agencies, such as mental health professionals, bar associations, schools etc. Those are your natural allies.

And when success happens, both big and small we should recognize staff and partner success and share the glory. And we should publicize their victories in the communications realms of the courts where you and I work. The conference is designed to help you do just that ... I think it’s exciting and I know you will too.

I’m going to yield now but I will be back on Wednesday for a chat with you about your role in the world of courts and our number one problem, addiction.

Welcome, again, to Cleveland. The best location in the nation. 

Come by and see us in Columbus if you get a chance. You are always welcome in Columbus to visit our magnificent Court building. We will arrange a tour and show you around.

If you root for the Indians tonight at the CCPIO outing – and they win – we’ll let you in for free at the Court.

Have a great conference.

See you again Wednesday.

And God Bless.