Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association Winter Conference Webinar
Dec. 3, 2020

(Event was on December 2, 2020, with a virtual audience)

Good morning, everyone.

I’d like to start this morning by noting there will be 24 new judges on the common pleas bench when 2021 arrives.

Of those, 20 have never before held judicial office.

Three come from municipal and county courts and one is moving from another common pleas general division seat.

Welcome, all of you, veterans and freshmen alike!

You are part of a great judicial tradition in a state that values your service, your ideas, your innovation – and your willingness to share knowledge with each other.

I’m proud to have been a common pleas judge myself.

And because I have sat on this bench I also know how difficult and at times complicated, the job has become over the years

I’ve always said trial court judges have the toughest jobs.

The appellate division and the supreme court have the luxury of time and colleagues when it comes time to make a decision…you have neither.

You are always on in your courtroom, always the focus of the media and always subject to being criticized for the way you do the job.

It can be tough, but it’s also rewarding…it’s one of the best ways to be a public servant.

My first order of business today is to swear-in the new officers of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association.

First, allow me to recognize them:

I am going to read the entire oath, and you will reply at the end with “I do.”

Do you swear to support the Constitution of the United States of America, the Constitution of the state of Ohio, and the constitution and by-laws of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, and to faithfully perform the duties incumbent upon you in the office to which you have been elected, so help you God?

Now, I’m going to swear in the new Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association President, Brown County Judge Scott T. Gusweiler.

Judge, please repeat after me…

I, Judge Scott T. Gusweiler, do solemnly swear ….

….that I will support the constitution of the United States of America, the constitution of the state of Ohio, and the constitution and by-laws of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association.

….and I will faithfully perform the duties incumbent upon me in the office of President of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, to which I have been elected….

….so help me God.

Thank you also, Judge Gusweiler, for participating in the Uniform Sentencing Entry Workgroup.

And congratulations to all for your new positions, and best of luck!

Now, I would like to shift to a more sobering topic.

As the numbers of COVID cases continue to spike in Ohio, safety in the courtroom is our number one concern.

I want to start by saying how grateful I am, as your Chief Justice, for the work that all of you do.

Your work and your innovation are appreciated — now, more than ever.

As we enter the final month of this difficult year, the numbers clearly show that this pandemic is getting worse daily.

Since the COVID-19 state of emergency was issued in March, courts around our state have been holding more and more hearings remotely.

Now, courts are looking for ways to expand remote technology to support community engagement. 

That’s why the iCOURT task force is in place.

The initials stand for Court Operations Using Remote Technology.

We want to identify best practices that courts can adopt during this pandemic and in the post-pandemic era.

We want to share experiences and promote continuing the use of technology so we can work smarter and improve access to justice.  

I appointed Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss to head this task force of 25 voting members to make recommendations.

Like many of your courts, Highland County has been using a video conferencing system during the pandemic.

But they were doing so even before COVID placed limits on courts.

The iCOURT task force includes judges, attorneys, prosecutors and court staff from across the state.

For example, Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Ian English serves on the iCOURT task force and is also chairing the Criminal Subcommittee of the task force.

Thank you for your work.

Darke County Common Pleas Court Judge Jonathan Hein also serves on the iCOURT task force.

In addition, I’ve asked Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine to serve as the court’s liaison for the task force.

Judges around the state were asked to fill out a survey to determine how remote technology is being put to use in our courts.

We also are seeking input from attorneys and litigants.

Thanks for taking part.

The response has been huge. Nearly 5,000 responses so far.

We really want input from all sides.

Technology can solve so many issues when it comes to operating our courts – and we want to make sound decisions as our processes develop.

As you know, at the start of the COVID crisis, I distributed $6 million in technology grants to courts in 87 of Ohio’s 88 counties so hearings could be held remotely.

At the Supreme Court, we have been holding oral arguments remotely.

And the Judicial College and our staffs also have expanded their use of distance technology.  

All courts are doing this, hence the new task force.

Business is not the only entity that will change the way it operates for the better.  Courts have the greenlight to do the same…the way our court system operates will take on many new dimensions as we study, stretch, and innovate. 

In addition to learning quickly how to use and expand remote technology, I applaud you for taking the necessary health precautions in your courtroom.

This should be your first consideration as a judge.

The health and safety of your employees, the court users, and the public who enter the courthouse is paramount.

Everyone correctly wearing masks….having their temperatures taken ……sanitizing …..and keeping their distance are mandatory practices to keep people safe.

However, due to the spiking COVID numbers, some courts in the hardest-hit areas have decided to temporarily halt jury trials through the year.

I regard that as a smart move, given the current situation.

The increase in COVID cases is more dangerous now than it was when the numbers were at their peak in late spring.

It likely will become more dangerous as people head indoors for the winter.

We may also be more at risk because the sensible precautions taken by most people in the early stages seem to have been tossed to the wind by so many.

I want to stay on this subject, yet shift gears a bit.

There are proposed rule changes you need to know about.  

There are proposals to amend Criminal Rules 11 and 41.

These changes would clarify that judges can take pleas using electronic means and also hear applications for search warrants by electronic means.  As always you are invited to weigh in with your thoughts.

As you know, there is a moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures until the end of the year.

Unless something changes quickly in Washington, we will likely see a surge in evictions and foreclosure filings when the new year arrives.

Our website is a resource for judges as you encounter the surge. Please take a look for tools and ideas.

Right now, across the state there are Online Dispute Resolution pilot programs for foreclosures.

Those courts include:

I am expecting that these pilots will produce practical applications to be shared.  Stay tuned.

There is no question that COVID-19 has upended our lives.

During this time of high anxiety, I know some of you have specialized docket courts, which can be challenging to oversee during a global pandemic.

I applaud the judges for making great efforts to keep participants connected.

That is so critical when it comes to addiction – and helping participants overcome their problems. It requires human intervention, in addition to humane intervention.

We are also making strides – despite the pandemic – with the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative, known as RJOI.

RJOI – the eight states including Ohio fighting the opioid crisis together – is rolling out Project ECHO.

ECHO stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes.

ECHO connects medical experts with judges so that decisions from the bench will better reflect the science of drug addiction —  especially the effects of opioid abuse on the brains of offenders.

I am so proud of Mahoning County Judge Jack Durkin, who is leading this effort.

He will use remote roundtable discussions involving doctors, medical researchers, and other professionals to reach out and instruct other judges.

Ten judges right now are participating in the training that started in November and will continue through January.

While we strengthen our efforts to provide more coordination and resources, I do want to take this time to congratulate Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Gary Yost, on his upcoming retirement.

He has run a successful drug court in Ashtabula County for more than 10 years.

In fact, I was there to help celebrate his success.

Thank you, Judge, for your great service.

Switching subjects now, there are rules or proposals that you need to know about.

New standards went into effect in October for record sealings and expungements.

There are also changes within the Rules for the Government of the Bar, which includes changes to the disciplinary system. 

These changes were adopted as a result of the report from of the Task Force on the Ohio Disciplinary System.  

These changes took effect November First.

They include:

Now I need to shift now to some important initiatives.

I have launched the Convictions Integrity Task Force and I’m proud of the four common pleas judges who sit on it.

Thanks to you again, Judge Coss from Highland County.

Thank you, Judge Stephen Mcintosh from Franklin County.

Judge Nick Selvaggio from Champaign County.

….and Lucas County Judge Lindsay Navarre.

Justice Michael Donnelly serves as the Supreme Court liaison to the Task Force

We have so much work to do.

I also want to take a moment to recognize the great work of the common pleas judges who participated in the RED project.

What is the RED project?

First, some background.

American University’s Justice Programs Office started using R-E-D – the Racial and Ethnic Disparity assessment tool.

It was designed to capture information about treatment courts’ operations and procedures with an emphasis on racial and ethnic disparities.  

At the Supreme Court we asked specialized dockets courts to volunteer to use the RED tool.

Forty specialized dockets in our state agreed and were assessed.

The goals?

Raising awareness about racial and ethnic disparities in treatment court

Assisting courts to identity racial and ethnic disparity in the systems and ways to alleviate that disparity.

Thank you, judges, for your support.

Everyone, stay tuned for the results when we have them.

When it comes to criminal justice reform, we all pledge to do better. Yet, we lack the most important basic tool for measuring the current situation and our progress.

That tool is a statewide criminal sentencing database.

I have made this a priority as I enter the final two years of my term

There’s no question that a database broad enough to reach across the entire system is the keystone to criminal justice reform and racial fairness.

Without solid data we have only episodic information. We have stories. Anecdotes.

But we can’t build a culture and a system of racial fairness with anecdotal evidence. It’s helpful. But to make solid decisions we need solid data.

Standardized data and collection methodology has been on the racial fairness wish list for decades in nearly every state in our nation – without success.

Now, it is time to act and for Ohio to step up. Please stay tuned as this project moves forward.

I think that you’ve heard me mention that Judge Reed has volunteered to be the pilot court for the use of the Uniform Sentencing Entry and the document detailing the Method of Conviction.

Judge Reed will be working with the academics from the UC. Thank you again Judge Reed.

In addition to the pilot, we have received requests from numerous judges who want to begin using the entry and MOC document so that they too can help fashion the final product based upon their suggestions.

Thank you to all judges who have shown a willingness to do this.

The Criminal Sentencing Commission is leading this project with their incredible staff with Sara Andrews at the helm.

Please email the commission’s director, Sara Andrews, at sara.andrews@sc.ohio.gov with any questions or if you would like to participate.

Let me close by taking the opportunity to say thanks to each of you.

This year has created some of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in our careers:

We are up to these challenges if we work together.

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

I don’t have to tell you that it is not very often that people come into your courts voluntarily.  They’ve got problems that require your attention and expertise.

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

Please remember that the people who enter your court are assessing you, expecting your help, and have the expectation of being treated with dignity and fairness.

Their interaction with you will color their perception of Ohio’s judiciary.

I know that you are only one judge but to them you are Ohio’s judiciary…Make yourself and all judges proud.

May you have a wonderful holiday season.

Stay safe.

Thanks again for the work you do.

And may God Bless.