Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Williams County Off-Site Court
Oct. 23, 2019

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Oct. 23, 2019, at Montpelier High School.)

Good morning, students, teachers, staff and guests.

And good morning, attorneys and judges.

I’m Maureen O’Connor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Thank you for inviting the Supreme Court to Williams County. We have three cases today that I think students and faculty will find very interesting.

We have eight high schools represented this morning.

Before we don our robes and begin our Court session, I would like to introduce my colleagues – in order of seniority.

Then, we’ll have a question-and-answer period. I’m looking forward to your questions.

I’m sure you’re ready to ask us a variety of questions, but if you don’t I’ll call on you.  

I will start with myself.

I am the 10th chief justice to serve in Ohio and the first woman to have this honor. I was elected in 2016 to my second six-year term as chief justice after being elected twice as a Justice.  

Prior to coming to the Court I served as a magistrate, a trial judge and a prosecuting attorney. I then became lieutenant governor and director of the Department of Public Safety.

Now, I’d like to introduce Justice Sharon Kennedy.

Justice Kennedy joined the Court in 2012 and was elected to her first full term in 2014. She previously served on the Butler County Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Division, and became the administrative judge for that division. That was in Hamilton, which is north of Cincinnati. Before becoming a judge, Justice Kennedy served as a police officer in Hamilton.

Justice Judith French joined the Court in 2013 and was elected to her first full term in 2014. Prior to her service with us, she was a judge on the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Columbus.

Justice French also served as counselor to a governor and as chief counsel to the attorney general.

Justice Pat Fischer became a Justice in 2017.  He previously served on the First District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Justice Fischer also served a term as president of the Ohio State Bar Association.

Justice Pat DeWine also started his term two years ago. He also comes from the First District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, and was a trial court judge.

Justice DeWine served as a Hamilton County Commissioner and as a Cincinnati city council member.

Justice Michael Donnelly joined the Supreme Court this year.

Justice Donnelly was a judge on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, and before that was an assistant county prosecutor in Cleveland.

Justice Melody Stewart also joined the Supreme Court this year.

Previously, she served as a judge on the Eighth District Court of Appeals in Cleveland. Justice Stewart has served as a law school professor – and she holds an undergraduate degree in music.

Now, it’s your turn, students.

Who has the first question?   

WEDNESDAY ORAL ARGUMENTS INTRODUCTION

Good morning.

The justices of the Supreme Court of Ohio are delighted to be in Montpelier today for oral arguments.

This is the first time that our Off-Site Court program has visited Williams County.

Today marks the 77th session of Off-Site Court, a tradition that began 32 years ago.

We will hear three cases today.

Our “home court” usually is our ornate Courtroom in downtown Columbus. But as our television audience and web viewers can see, we are in a high school auditorium today.

We’re honored to be here at Montpelier High School in the northwestern corner of Ohio.

We were invited here by the Williams County judiciary, and we have been extended a sincere welcome by the faculty, staff and students, who are with us today.

To the members of the public who are in attendance, I welcome you to this session of our Court.  

Off-Site Court is an outreach program of the Supreme Court. We want to provide students, teachers and community members an up-close and in-person look at our Court in operation. 

For American democracy to function well, it is critical that our citizenry understand how our institutions of government work.

The judiciary has an especially important task in our society.

We must abide by the principles of justice and fairness. And as judges, we have a duty to work collectively and individually to educate Ohioans about the work – and the workings - of our courts.

Citizens, too, have a responsibility. All of us have a duty to educate ourselves about our three branches of government so that are democratic institutions can survive, and function well for everyone.

When we take our oral arguments on the road we go to high schools rather than local courthouses so that more members of the public – along with students and faculty -- can take part.

High school auditoriums are great venues for seeing and hearing the cases that come before us.

We enjoy traveling to all parts of our state.

Last spring we were in the far northeastern section of Ohio, Ashtabula County. Next spring, Off-Site Court moves east again – to Jefferson County on the West Virginia border.

At this time, I want to say thank-you to our hosts:

Montpelier School District Superintendent Jamie Grime

Montpelier School District Administrator Michael Bumb.  

Principal Su Thorp.

I also want to thank the superintendents, principals, and staff from the eight Williams County high schools in attendance for loaning us their students today.

The visiting schools are:

Teachers from each school received preview articles about our three cases several weeks ago, written by our Public Information staff at the Court.

The teachers worked with their students to understand the issues.

Local attorneys offered instructional help.

Now, the students are with us to hear each side of the three cases.    

Many people have worked on making this Court session possible.

I would like to recognize:

Williams County Probate-Juvenile Judge Steven Bird, who issued the formal invitation for the Court to travel here.

Common Pleas Court Judge J. T. Stelzer, and Bryan Municipal Court Judge Kent North.

I also want to acknowledge the work and support of:

Common Pleas Court Administrator Kim Coller.

The Court’s Magistrate, Karen Gallagher, and the Williams County Bar Association.

Williams County is served by the Sixth District Court of Appeals, based in Toledo.

I would like to acknowledge the bench of the Sixth  District:

Judge Christine Mayle

Judge Thomas Osowik

Judge Mark Pietrykowski

Judge Arlene Singer

Judge Gene Zmuda

Once again, thank you to the entire Williams County community.

To our audience and to our television and streaming viewers, welcome to this official session of the Court.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON LUNCHEON REMARKS

Thank you, Judge (Steven) Bird, for your kind introduction.

And thank you for inviting us here today.

I think you’ll agree that the cases we heard were compelling.

(To student speaker Braden Saneholtz)

Thank you, Braden, for representing your student body at our luncheon today.

Serving the educational needs of students is the main reason we hold these Supreme Court sessions on the road.

Thirty-two years ago when the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer launched Off-Site Court – and for many years afterward – these sessions were held in courthouses.

Moving to high schools was a great next step. It has opened up the Court sessions to many more people and provided an in-person experience that I hope all of you find valuable.

I’m also happy to be here at the Veterans Memorial.

I am impressed that this community established such a fine facility to honor those who served – including those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

You also put the facility to good use. I see by your website that you hold a variety of events here to honor our veterans and to serve the community.

We need to reflect often about the sacrifices of these brave men and women from our communities.

When I was Lieutenant Governor I served as Public Safety Director and Chair of Governor Taft’s Ohio Security Task Force.

That service allowed me to work directly with domestic first responders. Many of them were veterans who swapped one uniform for another.

I grew up having an appreciation for veterans and first responders. But after 9-11  my job as Public Safety Director gave me a whole new perspective on this brand of bravery and unselfishness.

By listening to their stories I came to better understand why and how they do what they do.

So, thanks to all of you for establishing this hall and keeping the efforts of these men and women alive every day.

Before I go any further I have a few acknowledgements.

I want thank our hosts from the school this morning:

Montpelier School Superintendent Jamie Grime.

District Administrator Michael Bumb. 

Principal, Su horp.

Principal Thorp, your students and those from the seven other high schools asked great questions. It was obvious that they were prepared today and had studied the cases.

So, please relay to their teachers how much I and the Justices appreciate their instruction.

These students were great but their success doesn’t happen without hard-working teachers and school administrators.

So, thank you for working each day to prepare them for life beyond high school.

A key component of Off-Site Court is safety and coordination by local law enforcement. I would like to recognize Daniel McGee, the police chief here in Montpelier, Steve Towns, the Williams County Sheriff, and Lieutenant Robert Ashenfelter of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

Three county commissioners are with us today: Brian Davis, Lew Hilkert, and Terry Rummel.

I would like to recognize the bench of the Sixth  District Court of Appeals in Toledo:

Judge Christine Mayle

Judge Thomas Osowik

Judge Mark Pietrykowski

Judge Arlene Singer

Judge Gene Zmuda

I also want to recognize several staffers from the Supreme Court:

Civic Education Manager Sara Stiffler and Coordinator Mason Farr.

The Marshal of the Court, Jason Thomas and Court Security Manager Ryan Fahle.

Our partners at Ohio Government Television arrived here Monday night and created a studio in the school. They deserve recognition for ensuring that the broadcast went so well today.

Each oral argument session, those from Columbus and Off-Site Court, is streamed live and archived on ohiochannel.org.

Thanks again to all of you for making today’s event go smoothly.

Off-Site Court is all about education.

We are a government OF the people, BY the people and FOR the people.

Stop and think about that familiar phrase for a minute. Self-government is an enormous undertaking.

There are so many elements that must move in unison to accomplish self-government successfully.

Competence of our elected leaders, for one, and a commitment to democratic principles.

The one critical component I want to emphasize today is education – in particular, education about our government and the law.

For our citizens to have confidence in our legal institutions, they must understand the ideals of fairness and equality.

They must understand how those ideals evolved, and how they are applied.

At that point, a citizen becomes equipped to take part thoughtfully in self-government.

That is what we are trying to accomplish through our education programs at the Court.

We try to make education interesting.

For example, when we travel to Off-Site Court we try to dig up a few historical notes about the host county.

I’ve been delving into Williams County history lately.

With some staff help I’ve found a few items that were new to me – some from the legal world and some not.

These details may – or may not – be familiar to you. If you know them -- well, a good story is worth telling more than once.

We talk about traveling to the corners of our state, but there really is only one true corner – at least in the way that a geometry teacher would see it.

That’s Williams County, the only one of the 88 counties that truly embodies a corner.

The nearly 90-degree angle here was platted as a result of the Toledo War of 1835, which one textbook cited as a conflict based on, quote, “a poor understanding of geography” by the federal government, the Ohio state government, and Michigan, which was petitioning to become a state.

Almost 500 square miles of border land was in dispute. Both states deployed militias on opposite sides of the Maumee River.

Guns were drawn.

War is never a good thing, but this one had what you might call positive results.

Shots were fired – but into the air. No one was hurt.

There was no real fighting, just “taunting” between Ohioans and the Michiganders.(And it didn’t involve a football game ...)

Ohio won all the disputed border land, which made Williams County a bit bigger.

Michigan’s consolation prize was the land that is now the Upper Peninsula.

When I peered deep into your court history, I started at the top.

By that I mean the steeple of the Williams County Courthouse.

That’s where Charles Leichty set the world flag pole-sitting record of 21 days – perched in an armchair atop the courthouse in 1927.

The photos of Charles in his makeshift La-Z-Boy are truly incredible. What a reality TV star he would have been today.

There are other examples of the Williams County dare-devil spirit.

On a hot July day in 1966, locals and other employees of the New York Central Railroad strapped two jet engines onto a train in Stryker and whizzed through Bryan and the Williams County countryside at 183.68 miles per hour.

That set an American rail speed record that still stands in its category.

They ended up in Indiana. You would, too, if you were trying to slow down a jet train.

I also understand that in the late 19th Century  there was a local “Reign of Terror” by arsonists.

In the first decade of the 1900’s, more than 40 indictments were handed up against a dozen or so “firebugs” who preyed on Williams County for 30 years before state and local investigators cracked the case. More than one hundred buildings had burned to the ground.

It was one of the biggest and longest episodes of insurance fraud in U.S. history, and the trials played out in what was then a fairly new courthouse in Bryan.

The dramatic newspaper description of the events stated that, quote: “The wildest dime novel dreamer could hardly imagine so terrible a melodrama as has been acted by this conspiracy of mercenary firebugs.”

According to the annual reports of the state fire marshal, the majority of these local cases were conspiracies of arsonists and property owners on one side – and insurance companies on the other.

The property losses due to arson in the county for the 30 years ending around 1905 came to more than $1.5 million dollars, which would be about fifty million in today’s dollars.

It was the state fire marshal’s office and its investigators who were credited with finally cracking the cases over the three decades.

The arsonists and the property owners often split the insurance proceeds, so secrecy was a big part of the problem.

In the end, about a dozen men were given designated as “ring leaders” and were found guilty at trial. Most of the sentences were a year or two.

Williams County wasn’t alone. Insurance fraud by fire was a big business around the state.

That kind of writing kept people’s attention as the criminals – many of them prominent locals – were brought to justice.

At the Supreme Court, we’re also trying to keep the attention of students, although not in such sensational fashion.

Anyway, in addition to Off-Site Court, we are instituting a program this fall in Ohio schools called “Under Advisement.”

It is a version of Off-Site Court that teachers can download from a web site and use in the classroom.

“Under Advisement” follows two previously decided cases and employs videos of oral arguments and complete lesson plans and a teacher’s guide.

It can involve the participation of local judges and attorneys to help teach the subject along with the teacher. In fact, I’m encouraging teachers to reach out to local attorneys and judges – and for them to reach out to teachers.

The course can be taught in three or four days. It’s free of charge – and teachers have the freedom to use the materials at any time that fits their schedules.

The big advantage, of course, is that we can reach far more students that we can through in-person Off-Site Court.

Another offering from our Civic Education Section is Forum on the Law. We bring an expert or a panel of experts to our Courtroom to give an in-depth look at a current legal issue, or an important historical point in the history of the law.

We held a Forum on the Law just two days ago on the influence of the Italian Enlightenment on American justice.

Our Education Center at the Supreme Court is an excellent place for students – and adults – to learn about the judiciary and important cases.

About 13,000 students come through the center each year, and we subsidize the cost of the bus trips for many, many schools.

Before I turn over the microphone to my fellow justices, I have some acknowledgements to make about your local courts.

Williams County courts are small in number but mighty.

Specialized Docket certificates have been secured for both the Drug Court under Common Pleas Judge J.T. Stelzer and Family Intervention Court under Probate-Juvenile Court Judge Steven Bird.

Judge Stelzer also was successful in obtaining a recent multi-county innovation grant for Parent Coordination and Early Neutral Evaluation, a forward-thinking and compelling type of dispute resolution.

The Adult Probation effort here has been participating in the Justice Reinvestment Grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance for each of the past six years.

The probation department of Bryan Municipal Court under Judge Kent North has received the state’s prestigious Clifford Skeen Award three times in recent years for their work in, quote “exemplary community-based services.”

They have begun a SNAP education program through the Ohio State extension office in Bryan that meets weekly to train clients on healthier food options. 

The Muni Court also is utilizing pre-trial services in lieu of incarceration in an effort to reduce the use of bond. That’s just a few of the programs in Judge North’s court.

Meanwhile, speaking of education and keeping current, all three court administrators – Kim Coller, Jerry Stollings and Holly Schlosser, are graduates of the Supreme Court’s Court Management Program.

Last year, Williams County’s single magistrate, Karen Gallagher, who is responsible for the domestic relations docket for the General Division as well as juvenile parentage cases, was awarded the Cherish the Child Award. Karen has worked with four neighboring counties to redraft joint local rules, while providing quarterly forums on domestic relations topics for the local bar, and pro bono opportunities.

I am always thrilled to hear these stories about local courts going the extra mile to bring justice – and access to justice – to its citizens.

Justice Kennedy ...

(Each Justice introduces the next in order of seniority.)

Thank you, Justice Stewart.

And thank you to all my colleagues.

Before we conclude, I would like to make two presentations.

These are “class photos” of our Court.

I would like to present this photo to Montpelier High School, its staff and students, for doing such a great job of hosting us today.

Principal Su Thorp, please come up.

And here is a photo for the Williams County courts.

Judges Bird, Stelzer and North, I would like to present this photo to you, to the bar, and to your magistrate and staffs for all the work they do – and to commemorate today’s court session.

This concludes our Off-Site Court program.

Before I turn it over to Judges Bird and Stelzer, I want to thank you once again for your hospitality.

All of you are welcome to come to Columbus to visit our beautiful Court building downtown and our education center.

No steeple climbing will be allowed.

But it really is a marvelous tour – one that you will never forget.

May God Bless.