Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
New Judges Orientation
Dec. 7, 2020

(Event was on December 7, 2020, with a virtual audience)

Good morning, everyone.

Thank you, Christy.

I’m happy to join you today.

I want to thank Christy, Debbie Weinberg, and Maria Mone for leading the education sessions of the Judicial College, including the seminars that all of you will take part in this week.

After reviewing the agenda and seeing all the speakers listed for your three days, there’s no question you are in good hands, and you will learn a lot.

I want to begin with one word: Congratulations!

Becoming a judge, transitioning from the role of an attorney to that of a judge is exciting and sobering.

This training is meant as your first sessions to help you with the transition…it will be by no means your last.

Of the 68 attendees at this week’s orientation, 52 of you are brand new to the judiciary.

This year’s new judges’ class is large and includes judges from all jurisdictions or courts – appellate, common pleas general division, domestic relations, juvenile, probate, and county courts.

This week’s education is about identifying needs and getting answers.

Last week, I addressed the common pleas judges who are already sitting on the bench.

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.

I commended them for showing great creativity and serving as innovators during these difficult months of Covid-19 challenges.

They, like you, will face hardships that will come fast and furious, as the number of COVID cases continues to rise.

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

But again, we have each other to lean on for guidance and constant communication.

We will use best practices – and invent new ones when we need to – as we keep our courts operating safely.

That means ensuring your courtrooms are safe places to be.

The first line of protection against Covid-19 is remote technology.

You are to use virtual hearings as your first resort. Zoom is your friend. We have the staff to offer help with that if you need it.

In the spring, I took $6 million and supplied every court who applied with the grants to establish virtual proceeding. Please use technology.

Some may be saying that the parties may not have the ability to Zoom. There is a less technologically advanced tool to use…conference calls. Use the phone for pre-trials, status conferences, etc.

For those in custody, virtual hearings from the jail are the way to go.

Another important responsibility is pre-trial release.

Remember that cash bail is only to be used to ensure defendants return to hearings or if the defendant poses a danger to the community. It is not a means to keep people incarcerated pre-trial.

Staff and everyone who enters your building must have their temp taken and be wearing masks, correctly.

If you need hand held thermometers, let us know.

Social distancing will be planned ahead of time so that it works when people must come into the building, the lobby, the elevators, the halls and the courtroom.

You will use Plexiglas to keep staff and the public safe.

I hear from attorneys that some judges insist on personal appearances and setting jury trials. Please do not be one of those judges.

Attorneys have legitimate concerns for the safety of themselves, their families and their clients.

That’s just the new reality.

On that subject, I want to take a moment to address any anxiety you may be feeling.

You are just getting started as a jurist, and you might feel the weight of the world upon your shoulders.

I want to assure you - we, as judges, look out for each other in Ohio.

I know these are uncertain times, but I am confident, with vaccines coming, we will see a light at the end of this tunnel.

It may not arrive on the time frame we prefer.

But, by embracing the new realities and sharing innovative practices, we can – and will -- get through this.

Someday, when it’s over, there is a good chance we won’t go back to the way things were before the crisis.

This crisis can be an opportunity.

As my good friend Chief Justice Bridget McCormack from Michigan said, this is not the crisis we wanted but it is the crisis we needed…she was referring innovation in the courts.

This pandemic has caused us to constantly make progress in ways no one expected.

The innovation that our courts have shown – at all levels – these past 10 months – has been remarkable.

I look at it this way: In this moment of crisis, we are dealing with a difficult present.

But while doing so, we are creating new ways of operating that will benefit us in the future.

All of you are joining the bench at a time of upheaval and change that will serve you well if you take this advice: Be open and responsive to new ways of doing old things.

And remember, just like you will experience this week, our Supreme Court staff is very capable – and always here to help you.

This staff can support you directly as they dispense their expertise.

And they can act as a conduit between you and other courts.

I know, it will be easier to share knowledge when we mingle together and share ideas and stories in person.

But in the meantime, let’s use our remote technology to the best extent possible.

Do so with the idea that technology can be our friend for a long time as we tackle society’s problems from the bench.

You can always visit our website www.sc.ohio.gov for guidance.

Our coronavirus pages are remarkable. There is so much good information there for you.

Another remarkable source of information can be found on the NCSC website. Ncsc.org  Please take a look and use that site as well.

But way beyond that, I want you to put your remote technology to use as best you can in the courtroom and think about ways to continue using it once the virus crisis is over.

I have commissioned a task force called I-COURT.

The C – O – U – R – T stands for:

This task force is at work right now – at the height of the pandemic – learning what courts are doing with technology so we can preserve the good ideas and build on them.

We also want to know what doesn’t work well, or should be modified.

It’s all about best practices and putting the top ideas out there for courts in Ohio – and nationally – to observe and consider.

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

That’s another thing you will learn well on the bench in Ohio.

Our courts aren’t afraid of innovation.

That’s why we are a national leader in many endeavors.

Now, about your day-to-day work.

You will face an onslaught of new challenges.

Foreclosures, Evictions and landlord-tenant issues will be at the top of the list.

Unemployment concerns are another issue.

Many cases will have this element embedded in them -- based on the fact that many Ohioans can’t work while this crisis is going on.

Imagine if your new job was advertised online.

A year ago, it might have read something like this: Ohio court seeks a strong leader for a position that is wide in scope.

But today, the ad would say: Ohio court needs a strong leader who will be facing enormous challenges.

This judge will need be comfortable working in an environment that will evolve daily, if not hourly.

We know the world of an American judge is a world of constant change.

The challenges are enormous because social norms are shifting.

Society is therefore demanding more and more of judges every day.

We in Ohio have adapted – in ways that no one in this profession could have predicted 20 years ago.

We have 261 Specialized Dockets Courts in our state today, including more than 192 drug courts.

Judges who operate drug courts are having a very difficult time right now.

It’s hard, yet crucial, to connect personally with drug court participants.

That’s what makes these courts work: Caring judges who can deal face-to-face with those they are trying to help.

That can’t happen often enough right now because of the COVID restrictions.

Yet, our drug courts and other specialized dockets are soldiering on – making the best of this situation.

I’m proud that Ohio has become a leader in specialized dockets.

One helping hand we offer is pairing you with a seasoned judge to serve as your mentor.

While mandatory, take full advantage of this mentoring partnership and get to know your colleagues from across our state.

Especially now, I can’t see how any new judge could get along without mentoring and seeking the wise counsel of experienced colleagues – given the pace of change in our profession.

In the face of each challenge, our courts must continue to operate effectively and efficiently.

We have to realize that in today’s courtroom, applying the law and achieving the best outcome often involves innovation and new approaches.

Yet, your consideration of new methods cannot come at the expense of the old foundations.

It’s time to build with new ideas, but place them on a solid foundation of principles that have served us so well.

You must respect precedent and the rule of law, while innovating and using new ideas when needed.

This merger of concepts is your challenge.

You must start from a familiar place: You must know the law.

You will learn a lot this week, from fellow judges and our staff.

I would like to introduce several staff and give a brief description of what they do and how they will help you.

John Groom is our Court security services manager.

One of John’s specialties is the onsite security audit of your courtroom, staff areas and courthouse. I encourage all of our courts to take advantage of John’s expertise. He usually visits a court with a fellow security officer to make suggestions while on site and then follow up with a written report.

Security is so important in our business. You’re aware of attacks and threats on judges in recent years.

Safety and security are no longer a given.

Jess Mosser, our legislative counsel, will talk to you about important items going on in front of the General Assembly.

These are items that will directly affect you.

Our Administrative Director is Jeff Hagler. Jeff will talk to you tomorrow, and he will continue to help identify Supreme Court resources and information you need as a new judge.

John VanNorman, chief legal counsel, will discuss your judges’ liability insurance.

Erick Gale, one of our master commissioners, will speak to you about affidavits of disqualification.

Diane Hayes, judicial assignment specialist, will tell you how special assignments are carried out.

Bruno Romero, manager of interpreter services, will review the rules and uses of interpreters. Language services are available to all litigants to ensure they can understand court proceedings. This covers those whose first language isn’t English and also those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Colleen Rosshirt, manager of the case management section of the Court, will discuss case flow and your court’s obligations of statistical reporting. Statistics help ensure that timely justice is delivered.

To open your sessions this morning, you will hear from Hancock County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Starn.

Judge Starn will discuss with you the establishment of your judicial philosophy and reputation.

Judicial ethics will be covered in detail. For that session you will meet Stark County Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath as well as Rick Dove and Allan Asbury of the Board of Professional Conduct.

I would like to tell you after your campaigns, that the hard part is over.

Yet this tsunami, that is COVID, will face you the first day on the job.

But you will have your mentor judges, and other judges, available to help.

And you will always have the support of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

I know these are daunting times.

One of the biggest challenges is 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 2 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 have 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 University of Cincinnati.

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.

Yet, I have no doubt in my mind that you are ready to tackle these challenges with courage and grace.

This isn’t just a job.

It truly is a calling.

Your duties extend to the public you serve, the staff you inherit or hire, and to the litigants who will come before you.

All of these people have a right to demand that you are legally competent, totally professional at all times, and service-oriented.

In ordinary times, I would say go out into the community and shake hands with the people you serve.

Sadly, we can’t do that now.

Yet, there could be a Rotary Club

You can teach the public how the judiciary works.

Make civic education part of your role. It’s so very important to keeping our society on an even keel.

One of my biggest concerns is the decline in the ranks and the experience of the news media.

We have fewer and fewer news reporters covering courts in Ohio.

So, it’s important to try to educate the public and the reporters who cover the community.

If you need help, you can always contact our Public Information Office for guidance.

I know, after this week, it’s a bit trickier to ask another judge out for a cup of coffee.

In fact, until conditions allow, we encourage you to seek out mentors and colleagues virtually.

This is crucial.

You, as a new judge, belong to an elite group.

Still, the effects of this pandemic can make your job feel lonely.

So, listen more.

This will give you a chance to realize you are on the right track and you can see things from different points of view.

Be proud of this job you embark upon.

No public health emergency can stop you from feeling proud of your new calling.

The rule of law is the life blood flowing through the veins of our social body.

We must respect it ourselves as judges

We must perform our duties in ways that allow respect to bounce back to us from the public.

Never let honesty and integrity get far from your thoughts.

They are lofty goals, but honesty and integrity are always within reach.

Please reach out. Please connect.

And don’t forget that the Supreme Court is here to help you.

Enjoy your seminars.

God Bless.