Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce “Capitol Conversations” - 2020 Legislative Day
Sept. 15, 2020

(Remarks delivered remotely on September 15, 2020, to a virtual audience)

Thank you, President (Wendy) Gramza for your introduction.

Good morning, everyone.

I’m always happy to visit Toledo.

Although, I must say, visiting via Zoom isn’t the same thing as being there.

I noticed on your web site your “reboot” initiative.

I congratulate your leadership and members for helping each other deal with this crisis.

You’re also looking ahead for the day when Toledo, Lucas County and Northwestern Ohio can start the journey back to normal, and I commend you for that.

We had our own challenges in Ohio courts these past six pandemic months.  Our judges have been working hard to stay open.

Closing the courts was not an option. Courts are an essential activity.

Using technology, ingenuity and common sense, we found ways to stay open while adhering to the state Department of Health guidelines.

Things slowed down a bit, especially jury trials.

But we’ve managed to keep serving the public.

Judges identified essential matters for their courts and got to work on accommodations.

They set up hearings with remote participation, and adhered to masks, sanitizing, and social distancing requirements.

They held proceedings in makeshift courtrooms.

The progress they made using electronics was substantial.

A lot of judges surprised themselves at how well remote technology would work.

We adapted – and we are still doing so.

In fact, I’ve announced the formation of a task force that will study how we can use this knowledge to further advance remote technology in courtrooms after the pandemic ends.

I’m proud of the way judges across the state have stepped up to make it work.

The Supreme Court is acting as an information clearinghouse for the local courts during the pandemic.

We keep track of their court orders on our web site so each court can see what other courts are doing, and share ideas.

We also make heavy use of web announcements and Court News Ohio articles and videos so that we act – and feel - like a cohesive group.

You know as well as I do that planning for the future seems like a quaint idea as this global health crisis hangs over us.

I do have one senior staffer, a department director who is a retired judge, who came to me more than a year ago.

He had the idea of putting together a health crisis guide for judges.

He even used the term “pandemic.”

We issued the guide to all Ohio judges in January, a couple of weeks before the pandemic began.

So, we had our own in-house Nostradamus.

I said OK to this project because I had a flashback.

Two decades ago I was lieutenant governor and director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety. 

I had taken part in table top exercises and training dealing with the spread of a fast-moving, highly contagious virus for which there was no vaccine.

That experience left a lasting impression on me.

There was the bad part - predictions of infections and mortalities around the world.

On the other hand, I also was exposed to the wealth of knowledge and expertise of our medical research community.

I never forgot about the value of highly skilled and dedicated professionals.

Public officials need to appreciate this expertise when a crisis strikes.

This is especially true when the public is crying out for leadership and help.

Since this is your legislative meeting, I’ll give you a few examples from my point of view of good government in action. 

Commentators talk a lot about government disfunction. While there is a lot to dislike way too often, there’s also a lot of good work that goes unreported.

Four years ago this month, I convened a summit meeting in Cincinnati on the opioid crisis that was raging then -- and is still with us.

A big part of the opioid crisis was governmental.

No single government body alone could deal with drug dealers or with doctors and pharmacies that were writing too many prescriptions, either on purpose or unwittingly.

While this crisis raged, there was no acknowledgement of borders not of cities, counties or townships.

The problem was mobile. Jurisdictions didn’t matter to those placing millions of pills in circulation.

Drug suppliers – some in fast cars and some in white coats.

Those who were supplying opioids benefitted and were able to thrive in large part because of the borders between law enforcement, legislatures, the medical community, academia, and aid groups.

I asked our Court staff to come up with a regional, cross-border effort.

I thought we should break down the barriers of political borders.

We needed to combine forces with other states so we could end pharmacy-hopping and doctor-shopping – and put hundreds of various law enforcement agencies on the same page.

At the same time, we needed to help the people who were becoming hooked on these drugs.

We needed empathy for these fellow citizens.

And we needed to help them cure themselves, medically and psychologically.

This problem has so many facets.

But we reached the goal of setting up a framework for dealing with this crisis.

A big part of the answer was government relations.

The group we set up is called the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative. We call it RJOI for short.

It includes Ohio and seven other states in our region.

Judicial is in the name, but all branches of government – at all levels – got involved – and have stayed involved.

We work together across the borders of government and the professions that deal with this crisis.

We got busy right away, working with legislators to update laws in these eight states.

We tackled problems such as legislation preventing pharmacy information from crossing state borders.

Today, other regions of the country have copied Ohio’s approach and there is a national effort as well.

The main reason we were able to act so quickly and decisively was simple. The opioid crisis had gotten away from us.

As a society, it was literally killing us.

During our three-day session in Cincinnati four years ago, a dozen opioid deaths took place in the city and its environs. And dozens more overdosed but were saved by heroic first responders.

Reform began to take shape because our society was at a breaking point.

Our regional group found that even governmental bureaucracy was loosening up.

Now, let’s look at today.

George Floyd, a handcuffed, unarmed Black man is killed by police in Minneapolis, setting off protests that are still with us.

The resentment of those who are protesting peacefully in the street is not the result of that one incident, or of similar events in Louisville or Kenosha.

The anger and bitterness have been brewing for decades – even centuries.

When it comes to justice, the history of our nation is one of immense contradictions:

We have Founders who envisioned equality for all, while owning slaves.

Laws and court decisions discriminated against fellow Americans on the basis of race and gender.

Barriers enacted by lawmakers and upheld in courts have restricted access to capital and to certain neighborhoods, based on skin color.

Even some of our citizens right to vote without restrictions meant to disenfranchise wasn’t part of the American experience until the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

The list of injustices is long, and the effects have reached from one century to another.

The inequalities linger and persist.

But our Founders embedded in their hallowed documents the instruments of change.

Change for the better is a hallmark of the American system of government.

And while change is always possible, real change usually needs a push.

That’s what is happening in our country right now.

Like the opioid crisis, our civil rights and justice crisis has reached an intensity that demands positive action.

The justice crisis is bigger than opioids because it affects so many more people and because its roots are so deep.

In times of crisis, we need to keep our perspective.

Some dismiss today’s protesters as hordes of vandals, and ignore the real crisis.

There are vandals, to be sure. Our own Supreme Court building was targeted for two nights this summer.

But I make a distinction between Americans lawfully exercising their free speech rights and those who would take advantage of these events to do evil.

Our staff produced a six-minute video of the damage to our building, and I invite you to watch it. Thank you to the Toledo Chamber for making it available to those watching today.

We recorded this video because it’s important that we not let these events pass without placing them in total perspective.

Then, we can turn the energy of these movements into action, just as we did with the opioid crisis.

Some actions are big, others evolutionary.

At the Supreme Court of Ohio this year, we took many steps, some big, some small, to increase access to justice and fairness in the courtroom.

Just a few months ago, we established new rules governing bail, bond, and pre-trial release in criminal cases.

Today, Ohio courts must use the least-restrictive bond conditions and the lowest amount of monetary bail to secure a defendant’s court appearance.

Going forward, bond schedules are only to be used for securing release when court is not in session.

Of course, there is nothing to say a court can’t go further in this direction and have a duty judge to review and set bonds after hours and on weekends.

Another important step we took was the appointment of a Task Force on Conviction Integrity. Its first meeting is this week (September 17.)

It is chaired by Toledo’s own Judge Gene Zmuda, who sits on the Sixth District Court of Appeals and was a municipal and common pleas judge in your city.

The Task Force is charged with analyzing and recommending advancements in the ways that convictions are handed down and reviewed.

Integrity and convictions are two words that must always be inextricably linked.

Judges must sentence with consistency.

After all, incarceration carries a monetary cost for taxpayers. More important are the human costs of jail and prison.

But how does a judge know whether she or he is on the right track when deciding to lock up someone?

The answer can be found in measurements. In data.

Most, if not all, of you are business folks and you know how important data and metrics are to the business world.

The vital nature of data to business goes without question.

Yet, most of you may be surprised to learn that Ohio does not have a statewide criminal sentencing database.

Which states have a workable database that brings total transparency to the law enforcement, criminal justice and corrections systems?

If you guessed zero, you would be right.

The need for these systems has been recognized in nearly every state. But not one has established a total system.

Here in Ohio, a commission empowered by the late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer called for a comprehensive sentencing database in 1999.

It’s part of a report on racial fairness in our state. Three years later, a follow-up report emphasized the same point: Without data, we don’t know the true situation.

Judges and lawyers should have the tools to know what the data show regarding sentencing, and the entire outcome of court proceedings, for each offense statewide.

We do gather data in our judicial system. Reams and reams of it, in fact.

But we don’t go nearly far enough to know how fair and equitable judges are – or can be - when they make the most important decisions facing them.  

We need to bring together the data from courts and those of law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers and corrections departments.

This information exists, but it’s not aggregated.

It’s housed inside more than 300 courts in 88 county silos and at agencies and departments around the state.

This lack of knowledge about sentencing reverberates in the public as lack of confidence in the judiciary.

It is part of the system that protesters are placing before us – on placards and on TV screens.

Constructing such systems is difficult.  That’s been the main excuse over the years. But we’ve been in the digital age for some time now.

Imagine if the Fiat Chrysler plant in Toledo were unable to order and keep track of the millions of parts needed each week to build Jeeps?

It’s unthinkable.

Therefore, I have made the sentencing database a top priority for our Supreme Court and our court system.

And we will strive toward teamwork with the executive and legislative branches of government to make a comprehensive system a reality.

What are we looking for?

These are the basics:

What sentence did courts impose for each felony offender? 

What was the record of the offender?

What was the race of the offender?

How many people were sentenced to a specific felony offense this year and at what level?

What number were placed in diversion programs?

How many were put on court-ordered community control?

We live in an era today where fiction is displayed as fact and truth is under assault.

All the more reason for the public to know the results of the actions of courts, law enforcement and corrections agencies.

For truth to win out over rumor and fiction, the public must be able to see equal justice for all and understand how we measure it.

I think we can get there.

I will be working hard on this, as will many of my judicial colleagues.

Speaking of judicial colleagues, as you know there will be over 250 judges on the ballot in Ohio this November.

Please be receptive to receiving information about those who will be on the ballot in your county.

Local common pleas, Court of appeals and Supreme Court seats will be on the ballot.

I highly recommend that you view Judicialvotescount.org to read about those running and will be on your ballot.

In presidential election years, people tend to focus only on the partisan races and ignore the judiciary…

In 2012, 40% of those who voted in Cuyahoga County did not vote for judges.

Because judges hear cases and make decisions that affect every aspect of society, for people, businesses and corporations, etc. who sits on the bench is important.

Your vote is important.  Please exercise your right and duty to vote.

Please remember that you can keep track of the initiatives I’ve mentioned on sc.ohio.gov and at courtnewsohio.gov

Once again, thank you for inviting me today.

If you like, I will now take any questions you may have.