Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Specialized Dockets Annual Conference
Nov. 21, 2019

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, at the Ohio Union at The Ohio State University.)

Thank you, Judge (Theresa) Dellick, for your kind introduction.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome.

It’s so encouraging to see such a large gathering.

As Judge Dellick noted, this is our 15th Specialized Dockets Conference.

The turnout is a record. Thanks so much for being here.

It’s always an honor to address you upon the opening of this conference. This conference gets better every year.

This forum is so well-developed that it would take all of my speaking time to give shout-outs to each of the programs you’ll be part of today and tomorrow.

I’ll just say it this way: These two days of sessions and seminars are impressive – and so is the roster of speakers.

We have judges along with program coordinators, probation officers, child welfare workers, treatment professionals and educators.

You are a multi-disciplinary group, and that reflects the way that Specialized Dockets operate today in our state.

This turnout speaks to knowledge-building and coordination across disciplines. That is a core strength of Specialized Dockets.

I’m happy to see so many of the same faces I recognize from past years.

To the returning attendees, I welcome you again.

I know that many of you are here for the first time. To you I say, welcome. You are taking part in a movement.

Ohio is at the forefront of the changing nature of court practices, and all of you are an essential part of it.

Specialized Dockets is the center of a changing judicial universe.

We are here, in large part, because societal problems evolve – in number and complexity.

... and social problems always find a path to the courthouse.

But this movement also reflects something else.

A willingness by professionals from different fields to tackle those problems head-on.

You are willing to work together and explore solutions in concert with each other.

Believe me, that commitment amplifies the rate of progress.

Speaking of commitment, this is a good time to recognize the Manager of Specialized Dockets Programs at the Supreme Court, Monica Kagey.

Monica and her staff have excelled in certifying new courts and operating the programs with best practices in mind. Thank you, Monica.

This level of achievement by our staff and from all of you shows that Specialized Dockets work is maturing.

The models for our specialized courts are becoming more developed and refined.

Research is expanding. Data-gathering is moving forward.

People are benefitting.

From your perspective, keeping up with it all requires frequent interaction.

That means daily or almost-daily contact across your fields of expertise.

It also requires occasional gatherings, such as this one.

In the realm of Specialized Dockets, we’re combining research with development. That’s “R & D.”

It sounds scientific because it is.

We’re applying more science to our processes so that we have better foundations for our programs.

And through data, we’re beginning to keep better track of outcomes for the people we are trying to help.

When a new Specialized Dockets court is established today, it benefits from years of foundation-building.

With that idea in mind I want to thank you – for all that you have done. I also wish to thank our speakers for all they have accomplished and shared.

It heartens me that professionals like you are coming back for more and more education.

This is how we create models and improve on them.

We have so much work to do – to keep up with the problems that society delivers to us. But we are on the right track, and this gathering is proof of that.

One thing this conference is not becoming is predictable.

The same can be said for the work that we do.

In fact, the opposite is true.

We are here because our work lives aren’t predictable.

No one could have forecast at our first conference what running a local court would be like today in Ohio.

No one could have – and no one did.
In some ways this situation reminds me of the episodes that predate our 15 conferences by a few years.

Eighteen years ago I was lieutenant governor. At the same time, I was in charge of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

Those were the positions I held when 9-11 happened.

Suddenly, my job took on a different type of urgency. I felt a sense of duty in a way I had never experienced before – because of the size and the nature of the crisis.

You remember. The challenges were immense – and not at all predictable:

Unseen forces were at work against us.

No one had an unobstructed view of the situation as it unfolded.

The origins of the crisis were difficult to grasp.

Yet, as public servants, we had some advantages that had built up over time.

In the area of public protection, we had a knowledge base.

We also had skilled first responders, emergency preparedness experts, military personnel, and many other national, state and local players.

9-11 posed a type of threat that our country hadn’t faced before – But public agencies had cooperated in catastrophic situations before and we knew how to plan and how to communicate.

We just needed to educate ourselves about the new aspects of this threat.

We needed to be inventive.

We needed to take a look at what we knew: determine what applied to this new world, and create new strategies to match the new threats.

In many respects, the Addiction Crisis that has had a grip on so many of our parents, children, brothers and sisters has forced us to reevaluate, learn from addiction treatment specialists, invent new approaches and new responses. Specialized Dockets today occupy a place in that world of new strategies. 

Unlike 9-11, there was no massive shock to our collective psyche on one tragic day.

The social ills that we are dealing today in our courts evolved.

They have grown more like a cancer than a sudden terrorist strike.

But we can learn from the similarities of 9-11 and other calls to action.

In Specialized Dockets, we talk across professions. We get together to plan and to share responses in an atmosphere that acknowledges the crisis.

We analyze. We share our successes and failures.

By doing all this we build on our knowledge base and we elevate our professions.

Society benefits.

We have demonstrated in Specialized Dockets that we can gather our collective strength and our will and break down great barriers, like bureaucratic walls.

We did that with the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative that’s now 3 years old.

Our eight-state consortium worked across state lines and with legislatures to share P.D.M.P. data, which cut down on doctor shopping.

We worked with law enforcement agencies on new ways to cooperate on interdiction.

Each state now publishes its innovations on the web site of the National Center for State Courts. 

We rolled up our sleeves and advanced more quickly than I had imagined.

We took advantage of a crisis atmosphere to move things along.

On the other hand, it can take decades to achieve best practices when a culture change is called for.

That was the situation with Medication-Assisted Treatment.

In the case of MAT, it took years and mountains of  science before old prejudices could be overcome.

Using medication to fight drug addiction was a difficult concept for many sectors of society to understand.

We had to persuade Americans that addiction is a sickness. Medication can be indicated to address an illness. True. But getting to where we are today was a long, tough road.

Today, we have scientific proof of MAT’s effectiveness, and the data to back it up.

We have built track records in many areas.

Our performance is being recognized by lawmakers, and those who make and carry out policy.

Their recognition of the urgency of what we do – and the results we have been able to achieve – has led to increased funding for specialized courts from a variety of sources.

On the state level ... the funder is the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

There’s a lot of good news breaking right now from this agency we call “O-MHAS”.

O-MHAS funds were capped for many years at 5 million dollars annually. The cap has now been raised by 50 percent to 7-point-5 million dollars a year.

This big jump in funding is through a program announced just last month called the Specialized Dockets Subsidy Project.

It is aimed directly at mental health and addiction.

The purpose is to offset the payroll costs for Specialized Dockets staff members.

The increase also is aimed at establishing 30 new certified drug courts across Ohio during the current two-year budget cycle. Gov. DeWine championed this goal of increasing certified drug courts and I thank him for his support.

These funds also can be used for clinical services provided by certified mental health and addiction providers, as well as MAT and other support.

These funds are available now through June 30, 2021.

These are positive steps forward.

On the federal level, three funders are suppling operating aid to Specialized Dockets in Ohio:

SAMHSA – the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

SAMHSA funds tend to be team-focused, the teams being treatment providers, hospitals and child welfare agencies, as well as courts.

The OJJDP – the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Department of Justice is a major supporter of programs in family drug courts and juvenile drug courts.

The third funder I want to mention on the federal level is the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Department of Justice.


In just the past year B-J-A funding to Specialized Dockets in Ohio reached 2-point-seven million dollars ($2.7million.).

This funding demonstrates how state agencies and our lawmakers are listening.

What are they hearing when they listen? They are hearing about the effectiveness of our programs.

And they are seeing results in their home towns.

This brings me to the topics of certification and adherence to the models of Specialized Dockets.

Even though our knowledge evolves, we must be sure to adhere to model structures and best practices.

The models themselves can evolve. But we must always be mindful that we are putting taxpayer money to work, and we must be accountable at all times.

This speaks to certification rules and to data gathering.

Speaking of data, I would like to give recognition to the data chief at the Supreme Court, Brian Farrington.

Not only is Brian leading a great enhancement of the data we collect, but he is also packaging the data for easy access on your computers and mobile devices.

Be sure to catch his session on Day 2 of the conference. Thanks, Brian!

We must be open to new ideas about how we do our jobs, yet keep our goals always in front of us. That’s what a model does.

Then, we must measure our results – and report them publicly.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals has developed a list of 10 key components of a drug court model.

The provisions on this list is the foundation of all treatment courts, including mental health dockets, veterans courts and all other special courts.

Here is what a model specialized docket must do:

Integrate alcohol and other drug treatment services within case management systems. 

Employ a non-adversarial approach to prosecution and to defense counsel, and tie this approach on due process rights.

Identify eligible participants early and get them into the program.

Provide access to a full spectrum of treatment and rehabilitation services.

Use frequent drug and alcohol screens to check for abstinence.

Here is one that I will read verbatim. Quote: “Ongoing judicial interaction with each drug court participant is essential.” That is so important. It makes your program real. And it rightfully places the judge as the lynchpin of a successful treatment team model.

Here is another component: Set up an evaluation system for your court so you can measure goals and effectiveness.

Continuing education for staff is a must and it should be interdisciplinary.

Forge partnerships among specialized dockets, public agencies, and community organizations. Not only will this make your docket effective, but it will build good will in your community.

Collectively, we have taken on huge challenges brought our way by society.

We have strived to maintain the rule of law, and to uphold the principles of fairness and equal justice.

We have done this while helping society get through immense challenges.

We’ve accomplished this by observing, learning and sharing ideas – and by caring about our fellow citizens in need.

And we have stayed true to our principles.

As our models evolve and are proven to work our usual course of business will look like our certified Specialized Dockets courts.

We will see individual defendants with substance abuse and mental health problems as just that: individuals, like us.

“Business as Usual” will mean helping them solve problems through court innovation and professional collaboration.

The emerging models of Specialized Dockets will become the new norm.

If we can do that. If we can adhere to that model of justice, then we will be doing what court’s have been created to do, to solve some of societies’ problems individual by individual.

Thank you once again for listening.

Have a great conference.

And God Bless.