Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association Winter Conference
Dec. 4, 2019

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Dec. 4, 2019, at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Dublin, OH.)

Thank you, Judge Luebbers.

Good afternoon. It’s great to be with you.

Congratulations to all the new officers and trustees.

Thanks, as well, to all of you for your leadership of Ohio’s common pleas courts over the past year.

I want to brief you on items that are moving along right now at the Supreme Court and also at the legislature.

These are developments that will directly affect you.

In light of the defeat of Issue 1 last year, I want to thank you for your help in making that critical outcome possible.

Right now, House Bill 1 is being considered, and the language in that bill would create meaningful legislation. 

We need to support it.

Voters across Ohio heard you last year when Issue 1 was being debated.  

Yet, at the same time, voters understood the need for   criminal justice reform.

Reform simply needs to be done correctly, and House Bill 1 would accomplish that.

House Bill 1 would expand the use of intervention in lieu of conviction.

If someone is facing a felony drug charge in a common pleas court, the first avenue would be intervention in lieu of conviction.

The science of addiction is clear. Intervention is required.

Placing a drug user in jail leaves the addiction untreated.

The only mechanism that we have in place – to place that person into treatment – is the court system.

That’s why I’m supporting House Bill 1.  

Another issue that House Bill 1 tackles is the stigma of a felony.

We want to place recovering drug users on a path to becoming contributing citizens.

But any felony, even a low-level felony, is a big obstacle on that path.

House Bill 1 provides the ability for a record to be sealed.

That clears the path to success.

Adjudicated users would be able to seek employment without the burden of the felony record.

Obtaining a decent place to live would be made easier.  

House Bill 1 is all about learning to look at our current drug epidemic from a new perspective.

I like to look at the 3 E’s, as I call them.

Those are:

Education

Employment

... and Environment

Where children grow up – and how they grow up – often determines whether they will end in up in the criminal justice system.

It also can determine whether they will cope with stress through drug abuse.  

That makes drug education a key – avoiding drug use in the first place.

House Bill 1 would seek less prison time for non-violent drug offenders. That would be such a big step forward for offenders.

At the same time, taxpayers would get a break. Ohio’s prisons are overcrowded and represent one of the biggest expenditures in the state budget.

Just last month (November) I sat down with lawmakers to discuss strategies for criminal justice reform.

I told them I would propose building a new kind of prison.

The idea is that a prison could treat drug-addicted inmates the way the Betty Ford clinic treats its patients.

Drugs have made defendants out of people who otherwise may not have become defendants.

Sentencing them to a fate behind bars – that doesn’t cure their addiction – is like throwing them away.

Just last month, we held our 15th annual Specialized Dockets Conference in Columbus.  

I love speaking there because I get to recognize all the hard work that is being done by specialized courts across the state.

Specialized Dockets continue to grow and grow in Ohio.

Not only are the number of dockets impressive, but the work being done is even more important – and remarkable.

On that note, I would like to offer one particular shout-out.

I want to congratulate Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss for establishing the first drug court in his county.

In addition to discussing drug courts at our conference, we also addressed other Specialized Dockets, including veterans courts.

We conducted a swearing-in of Battle Buddies. These are mentors who help those who are making the transition from the battlefield to day-to-day life.  

We call it the “Vet’s Boot Camp” and I’m pleased to recognize some of the courts that have sent mentors to this boot camp:

Judge John Russo from Cuyahoga County

Montgomery County Judge Timothy O’Connell

Lorain County Judge James Walther

Stark County Judge Taryn Heath

Warren County Judge Timothy Tepe

Summit County Judge Amy Corrigall Jones

All of them sent mentors to this program

Thank you!

Now, I’d like to congratulate two courts that are doing amazing work dealing with those struggling with mental health.

I’m pleased to recognize:

Ashtabula County Judge Marianne Sezon

Medina County Judge Joyce Kimbler.

Judge Sezon and Judge Kimbler were featured at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Conference. They explained how recovery happens in their mental health courts.

(Applause)

Let me point out that explanations like these – to the public, to local policy-makers and to the press – is SO important.

We are making great progress in specialized courts. Yet, we can’t forget the need to explain what we’re doing along the way.

Now, let me turn to some important matters before the Court.

The justices are in the process of reviewing the task force report on bail and the public comments that it generated.

I want to give a special thank-you to Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Mary Katherine Huffman, who served as the chairperson on the task force.

Judge Huffman’s leadership was extraordinary.

I also want to thank Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Andrew Ballard and Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John Russo for taking major roles by accepting seats on the task force.

I purposely sought out a diverse group from justice-related backgrounds.

Among the 30 task force members were judges, prosecutors, public defenders, criminal defense lawyers, law enforcement, members of the bail industry, as well as lawmakers.

As a result of the report, we have formed a working group to start implementing recommendations.

This starts with a “Pretrial Services Effective Practices Implementation Tool Kit.”

We also have another working group.

We will be developing “Best Practices for Implementing Effective Pretrial Division and Intervention in Lieu of Conviction Programs.”

That’s timely, considering the importance of advocating for House Bill 1 at the General Assembly.

I also want to take some time to review some new rules that will affect you.

There will be new mediation rules going into effect in January 2020.

These rules will increase the consistency and quality of court-connected mediation through the state.

Right now, 77 percent of common pleas courts refer some cases to mediation, and 63 percent of courts do so statewide.

Under the new rules, courts will continue to have discretion about whether to refer cases to mediation.

But those courts that elect to refer cases to mediation should be required to have a local rule.

Also, in terms of mediation, we are excited to host the second statewide dispute resolution conference next year.

We are still working out the exact day.

It was a huge success last year, and we are looking forward to hosting exciting speakers and presentations once again.

So, stay tuned.

Switching gears to another item that has received a lot of publicity ...

I want to address the issue of making potential changes for civil stalking protection orders.

Here’s where we stand:

The mediation pilot program has ended.

I formed a commission that recommended statewide rules that would allow mediation in certain circumstances.

The rules went out for public comment, and that public opinion period ended September 26th.

The Commission now is reviewing the public comments.

The comments were largely favorable to permitting courts to use mediation in limited circumstances in civil protection orders.

The statistical reporting instructions changed in 2019 to allow courts to stay cases for up to 60 days in order to refer cases to mediation and other dispute-resolution methods.

I’m so proud of the work you do, day in and day out across our 88 counties.  

I know it’s a tremendous responsibility, but one that you carry with such honor.

Please know that you have the full resources of the Supreme Court available to you.  

The decisions you make affect real people.

I know it’s demanding work. I hope you find it to be rewarding work.

The decisions you make, the experiences you carry, coupled with your compassion, makes me proud to be a member of this special profession, the judiciary.

May you have a wonderful holiday season.

Thanks again for the work you do, and God Bless.

Incoming officers:

Judge Jeffrey L. Reed President
Judge Scott T. Gusweiler President-Elect
Judge Robert C. Hickson, Jr. First Vice-President
Judge Gregory F. Singer Second Vice-President
Judge Taryn L. Heath Third Vice-President
Judge Brendan J. Sheehan Fourth Vice-President
Judge Barbara P. Gorman Secretary
Judge Mark K. Weist Treasurer
Judge Jody M. Luebbers Past President