Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Association of Magistrates Fall Conference
Sept. 3, 2020

(Remarks prepared for virtual delivery on September 3, 2020)

Thank you, OAM President and Magistrate Lyle for that introduction.

I wish we could be in the same room today. But the global pandemic forces us to connect virtually.

I want to begin by saying how proud I am that you are using remote technology to operate your courts safely and efficiently.

I am proud that the judiciary of Ohio has come together with state and local leaders to guarantee the vital operation of the state judicial system, and the public’s access to its courts.

I both commend and thank you, the magistrates, for carrying out your dynamic role in serving justice in Ohio.

That goes for normal times, too.

But during this health emergency, courts across our state are considering the health and safety of the public, as well as their staffs, while remaining mindful of the structure and dictates of our constitution and our laws.

It is a careful balance. And a successful one.

Magistrates have not only jumped into action to make our courts work in these unusual times.

But you also are sharing your good work and best practices with magistrates across the country, using remote technology.

You are preserving Ohio’s reputation as a state where courts are innovative when challenges arise.

There are many examples:

Magistrate Richard Altman from Fulton County Common Pleas General Division and Domestic Relations Court.

Magistrate Rosalind Florez from Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court and Magistrate Serpil Ergun from Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.

All joined an American Bar Association webinar to share ideas on dispute resolution when the ABA’s spring conference in New Orleans was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Another group of magistrates who were thinking ahead prepared backlog bench cards as a guide during this pandemic.

They are: Magistrates Ergun and Altman

Along with Magistrate Gretchen Beers from Miami County Domestic Relations Court

Magistrate Altman, by the way, is chair of the Commission on Dispute Resolution

Thank you for your innovation and creativity during these critical times.

This pandemic has created an onslaught of evictions and foreclosures, as magistrates know, all too well.

That’s why the foreclosure and evictions report was so important in walking magistrates and judges through the process.

I want to recognize those who put this critical guide together:

Magistrate Harold Paddock of Clermont Common Pleas Court

Magistrate Anthony Paat of Franklin County Municipal Court

Magistrate Gene Edwards of Franklin County Municipal Court

Magistrate Barbara Reitzloff, who is retired, from the Cleveland Municipal Court’s Housing Division

…and Magistrate Monica Klein of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court

Thank you, also, to Magistrate Michelle Edgar, from the Fairfield County Probate-Juvenile Court, for her leadership on the Quality Hearing Workgroup.

This group utilized a 12-county study of child welfare hearings.

More than 300 hearings were reviewed. After all of that research, the group then developed a bench guide to assist magistrates and judges hearing child welfare cases.

Speaking of children, I also want to applaud Magistrate William Sieloff, from the Franklin County Domestic and Juvenile Court, for his leadership in promoting child welfare practices in his court.

I also want to thank Magistrate Katie Lenski, of the Montgomery County Juvenile Court, for her work on the CHIPs program.

This reform legislation would center child welfare efforts around the needs and best interests of the child and less on the negative outcomes for parents in abuse-and-neglect cases.

The Advisory Committee on Children and Families recently submitted testimony to the Governor’s Children Services Transformation Advisory Council.

It attempts to reduce stigma and criminalization in child welfare cases.

Another thank-you goes out to Magistrate Jamie Blair, from Summit County Human Trafficking Court, for her great work.

Magistrate Blair is also very active on the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission, as well as providing valuable assistance to the Franklin County Juvenile Court as they apply for certification.

Thank you, magistrates, for all of your great work.

Since its inception in 1989, the Ohio Association of Magistrates, its members, and the Supreme Court have had a strong partnership.

That partnership continues.

Your conference agenda is very strong again this year, with timely topics and excellent faculty.

Thanks to the education committee for partnering with our Supreme Court Judicial College to make this education program a success.

I also want to take a moment to commend you on an incredible milestone.

I understand your association recently passed your 700th paid active magistrate, which means you represent a historic 83 percent of all Ohio Magistrates.

That’s quite an accomplishment. Congratulations.

Now, I would like to address rule changes that will affect you, as magistrates.

Effective, July First of this year, Civil Rule 53 was amended to provide clear guidelines for how a magistrate is to conduct a jury trial, upon consent of all parties.

All motions are to be ruled upon by the magistrate, and the parties cannot file objections to the judge.

The trial judge then shall enter a final judgment, in accordance with the result of the jury trial.

In addition to this rule, there are a few others out there for public comment that will affect the work you do.

The Ohio Supreme Court is seeking the public’s comment on Superintendence Rule 91.

Currently, there are no statutes or statewide court rules that govern the specialty practice of forensic child custody evaluation.

If approved, this new rule could establish standards on the appointment, qualifications, components of the evaluation, and duties for custody evaluations in domestic relations and juvenile courts.

As you know, custody disputes are challenging to decide, and custody evaluators have come to play an important role in contested child custody cases.

With the growth in custody evaluations, there are concerns about the reliability and quality of these evaluations.

The goal of Superintendence Rule 91 is to incorporate best practices that align with national standards into the legal framework.

The idea is to strengthen the quality of forensic evaluations and competency of those to whom this responsibility is delegated.

This rule will aid in protecting children with standard requirements for evaluations and expert testimony.

Proposed Superintendence Rule 91 will provide accountability and serve to safeguard the well-being of children and families as well as encourage uniformity of practice within Ohio’s 88 counties.

In adopting this rule, Ohio would join a number of other states that have acknowledged the need for comprehensive state standards governing the role of custody evaluators -- and the need for established thresholds to elevate performance.

Moving, on, I want to talk about an important rule that will go into effect next January.

It is part of the approved amendments to Superintendence Rule 48.

This rule sets forth standards regarding the appointment, duties, training, reporting and responsibilities of guardians ad litem in domestic relations and juvenile courts.

This will be the first amendment to the rule since its implementation in 2009.

One notable change is the increase in GAL training requirements.

GALs must earn 12 hours of pre-service education, six of which must be live.

The other six hours can be earned from online courses, teaching, writing, mentoring, or other activities approved by the appointing court.

Similarly, GALs also must complete six hours annually of continuing education, three of which must be live.

The other three hours can be earned from online courses, teaching, writing and mentoring – any of which must be court-approved.

While the educational requirements doubled, this increase better aligns Ohio’s requirements with those of other states’ and expands the manner in which the hours may be earned.

Other changes to Superintendence Rule 48 include the ability of a court to limit the scope of the GAL’s appointment to address a specific item or issue.

It provides guidance when attorneys are appointed to be both the child’s attorney and GAL.

The change also addresses conflicts that can arise when the child’s wishes differ from the GAL’s recommendations in abuse, neglect, dependency, unruly, and delinquency cases.

In these instances, this change requires the court to provide parties, including those unrepresented, and their counsel, with the GAL report.

The rule also imposes additional duties on a GAL such as observing the child with each parent, foster parent, guardian, or custodian.

This means interviewing the child when no parent, foster parent, guardian, or custodian is present, as well as visiting with the child at his or her residence.

Another rule revision is the specialized dockets certification.

Certification of Ohio specialized dockets has been effective since January of 2014.

Since that time, section staff and the Commission on Specialized Dockets have learned a great deal, and national best practices and research have emerged.

In response, the Commission on Specialized Dockets embarked upon a review process and proposed rule and certification standards changes and modifications that will go into effect January 1, 2021.

The goals of the changes centered around accuracy to communicate clearly and directly what is required and needed for certification.

The changes address fidelity to the model alignment with National Best Practice Standards for each type of docket.

Also included are flexibility and adaptability in response to local needs and resources for the communities.

The revisions provide for a reorganization of the current rule and certification standards to allow for a more logical flow.

Updated language reflective of national best practices and practice in the field is also incorporated.

Now that I’ve told you about rules and potential rules that will affect your courts, I want to share with you my continued passion project, that is, Access to Justice.

The events involving the death of George Floyd further restored my strong belief that there needs to be change, and we need to listen and move forward on a plan that adds transparency to sentencing.

If you haven’t seen how our beautiful building was affected by vandals, taking advantage of protesters, I urge you to see it on Courtnewsohio.gov.

How do we build transparency?

How do we give the public confidence that our courts are operating fairly and that everyone can view our decisions and decide for themselves?

The answer is metrics. And that means statistics and databases.

This is why I am advocating for a statewide database that tracks sentencing to ensure the fair and equitable administration of justice that continues to evade us.

We need to “see the numbers,” as you will hear from any company in our country, to ensure results.

For decades, we have been failing the citizens of Ohio because we don’t have this information.

Truly adequate figures are not there.

So, it’s time, to answer the call of so many task forces and commissions, and blue-ribbon panels of the past several decades to get something done.

We are at the beginning stages. But I hope that you join me in my quest to shine a light on our judicial practices.

Another transparency feature is public access to virtual Ohio court proceedings.

The Supreme Court of Ohio is committed to instilling public trust and confidence in the judiciary through public access to court proceedings, virtually.

The Supreme Court livestreams its oral arguments and archives those sessions. That comports with holding ‘open court.’

The Supreme Court’s main web site is in the process of developing a page that shows the live streaming of appellate and trial courts.

We have a name for it – the Ohio Virtual Courtroom Directory.

It is modeled after Texas and Michigan’s live streaming web pages. We plan on debuting this feature this fall so stay tuned.

Ohio will also feature audio live streaming as an option to video live streaming.

And speaking of more data and transparency, the Appellate Data Dashboards will be unveiled in 2021.

These tools will be similar to the trial court Data Dashboards that we currently display on our web pages.

You undoubtedly know that this November election’s is huge for our state and nation.

That’s why I in partnership with Secretary of State Frank LaRose have called for Ohio lawyers to volunteer as poll workers to help address the expected shortfall at voting precincts this fall.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t include magistrates or judges.

But please get the word out, to the lawyers you know - really any one over the age of 18 can be a poll worker.

Attorneys are being asked to volunteer in exchange for four hours of continuing legal education (CLE) credits. Those go toward the mandatory 24 credits they must earn every two years

This is so important to help counter the expected poll worker shortfall.

Most poll workers fall into the category of older Americans who are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 than younger people.

We need enough poll workers, so that voters who show up at the polls can be processed quickly. They won’t have to linger at the poll sites.

Please help get out the word to attorneys.

I’d like to close with another thank you and to ask you to keep up the good work.

I know these are challenging times.

But please, feel free to reach out to our Court Services section for any guidance you might need.

God Bless you all.