Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Association of Municipal and County Judges of Ohio Winter Conference
Jan. 28, 2021

(Event was on January 28, 2021, with a virtual audience)

Thank you, Judge (Denise) Moody.

Hello, everyone.

I want to thank the Association of Municipal and County Judges of Ohio for inviting me to speak today.

This is a well-established group. I understand that just two of you are new to this organization – so, Welcome!

After browsing through your agenda, I am very impressed with the program.

After I speak with you today, you will hear from experts on the science and effects of methamphetamine and cocaine use, and treatment for those who suffer from stimulant disorders.

I’m happy to hear that you are talking about this.

As we deal with COVID, opioid overdose cases are spiking.

It’s not getting much news media attention and public officials aren’t saying a lot, either.

But the opioid crisis didn’t go away. It’s just being overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as we battle to keep courts open during COVID, more and more people will be entering our drug courts.

Of course, pre-COVID Ohio had been engaged in cutting edge initiatives to address the crisis. I like the words cutting edge because it’s another way of saying new, different, and important.

Since 2016 when we created the eight-state Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative – otherwise known as R-JOI we’ve partnered with treatment professionals and states in our region to break down the barriers of geography and share information that has enhanced the justice system and the treatment community.

We also have Project Echo, which is education for judges on medical topics.

Echo stands for the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes.

It connects medical experts with judges so that decisions from the bench will better reflect the science of drug addiction.

Science and compassion are necessary tools to have when faced with cases that have their origin in addiction.

Being an understanding judge doesn’t make you a soft judge…it means you grasp the science of addiction and aren’t spinning your wheels and wasting time and resources on old practices that don’t work.

Another cutting edge is the education you will receive about evidence and social media.

This knowledge is so important in these times of Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media platforms that I’m not on.

You need to know how the rules of evidence apply to electronically stored information and social media posts.

I don’t have to tell you, the law on this is evolving.

We just saw social media giants eliminate the opportunity for some to use its platforms…Some cry foul and label that action an infringement of 1st Amendment, some want to hold the platforms accountable for its content, and some want to break up the social network giants for myriad reasons.

We will see how that plays out.

What about using social media to incite, plan, carry out violence? Can social media be weaponized?

10 years ago, I don’t think we would have been concerned about this but here we are and we need to think about these issues.

Now, I’d like to swear in the new officers and trustees -- and your new president.

Let’s start with that.

Greetings, Judges, I’d like to recognize you:

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, the Constitution of the state of Ohio, and the constitution and by-laws of the Association of Municipal and County Judges of Ohio, and to faithfully perform the duties incumbent upon you in the office to which you have been elected so help you God?

Thank you and congratulations!

Now, I am going to give the oath to your new president.

Greetings, Judge Teresa Lyn Ballinger.

Judge, please repeat after me.

I, Teresa Lyn Ballinger, 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 Association of Municipal and County Judges of Ohio ….

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

….So help me God.

Thank you, Judge Ballenger.

I want to mention that this is the first time in the history of this organization that a female judge is both the outgoing and incoming president.

Congratulations on that score!

Now, I’d like to update you on some items going on within the Supreme Court and the judiciary as a whole.

When it comes to court operations in this pandemic, I am very pleased with how you are using remote technology.

This is the key to ensuring that your courts are still in business.

I am convinced that using virtual technology will not end when the rollout of the vaccine is complete and we get back to something like normal.

Speaking of vaccines, we are still waiting for an answer from the Governor’s office about inoculating us.

I firmly believe that we, as court staff, should be high on the list to get vaccinations due to our interaction with the public and our mission to keep dockets moving and achieving access to justice for all.

This goes for lawyers and clients in jail or prison.

As you know, I contacted the governor as soon as vaccine distribution and recipient criterion were being discussed. I made the argument that we are on the front lines.

I wrote that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified judges, lawyers, and others providing legal assistance as essential and critical infrastructure workers.

Once first responders, medical staff, teachers, etc. are vaccinated, I’m hoping the courts and legal community are recognized for the roll we play in society.

I’m proud of the work that you have done, in the middle of this health crisis.

When the emergency broke in March, it was important to me that courts get the money they need for remote technology and software.

So, I transferred $6 million dollars from my budget so you could purchase virtual software, get laptops and TV monitors and audio equipment, and ensure that your courts keep running.

So far, so good.

Our Court Services statistician tells me that we are doing very well in minimizing case backlogs, thanks in large part, to the new way we conduct hearings, through technology.

It’s my belief that we will be using technology way past the day that we are in the clear of COVID.

In fact, I’ve launched an I-COURT task force to address that very issue.

The task force stands for:

Improving
Court
Operations
Using
Remote
Technology

It’s a fun name, but our mission is serious.

We have a panel of experts, including as Court liaison, Justice Pat DeWine, to examine how we have used remote technology, what’s worked well, and what is useful in non-pandemic times.

I want to thank the I-COURT Task Force municipal court judges, court administrators, IT folks, and the clerks that are tackling this issue. They are:

Franklin County Municipal Judge Andrea Peeples and Clerk Lori Tyack

Garfield Heights Municipal Court Judge Deborah Nicastro

Barberton Municipal Court Administrator Robert Incorvati

And Delaware Municipal Court IT Coordinator Nick Lockhart

It’s a chance to take a look at all the good ideas – and find the positive aspects that grew out of this crisis.

Communicating has taken on a whole different form through virtual meetings.

We use them during oral arguments and at our conference.

I’m getting very used to saying “please unmute yourself” to the counsel before us.

Exploring remote technology is just one the task forces that I’ve started in the past year.

Another is The Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review is a 24-member panel that had its first meeting last fall and is working hard as we speak.

Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge Gene Zmuda is the chairperson, and Justice Mike Donnelly serves as a liaison.

The next step is providing recommendations to the justices. That will happen soon.

Of course the Task Force to Examine the Ohio Bail System made its recommendations last year.

As a result of one of their recommendations, we succeeded in changing the rules governing bail, bond, and pre-trial release in criminal cases.

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

Bond schedules are to be used only for securing release before an initial appearance and are not to be considered by a trial court during a bond hearing.

Next, and I understand this may be a bit ambitious, that sometime in the spring we’ll have a report containing recommendations of we need to do to ensure fairness and equality in our sentencing.

One of the tools that we desperately need – to address inequalities in our system – is a statewide criminal justice database.

Statistics and data are essential not only in the world of business but in our government institutions. I would argue more so in our public institutions because we are spending the tax payors’ dollars.

We owe it to them to be smart and effective.

Yet, in Ohio’s criminal justice system, we have no standardized data and collection methodology on our criminal cases.

No data on crucial information that would allow our institution to track fairness in arrests, pretrial detention, pleas, and sentencing.

This is something many members of the public – and even news reporters who cover courts – ask about from time to time.

They think that, surely, the criminal justice system is keeping track of these critical stages of the system.

To the contrary, we have no such system. Neither does any other state. However, there is a movement in other states to do like we are in Ohio…establish the collection of data and how to access it to determine what we are doing right and what needs to be improved upon.

We want to be on the forefront of building a system that breaks down the data to find out how far we need to go to fix what many consider a “broken criminal justice system.”

We need this database to achieve and sustain public trust.

Nearly every state at one time or another has called for a database of its own, but we haven’t seen much progress.

Sadly, it’s been slow or non-existent for about 30 years.

The death of George Floyd and the struggles of people of color have revived efforts to get this done.

We are making progress on this front in Ohio, and I am confident we will achieve this critical goal.

Now, I want to shift to some important information that will affect you, as judges.

The first will bring a smile to your face.

You, as judges, received a raise at the beginning of the year.

This is an automatic adjustment required by law.

The General Assembly recently enacted revisions to the procedure for reimbursing assigned judges in municipal and county courts.

Under this new legislation, generally, the local government funding authority will pay the per diem compensation, with the ability to seek reimbursement from the Supreme Court.

We are working on the necessary rule amendments to implement this change.

Our next rule deals with standard sealing and expungement forms.

As of last October, standardized forms were created to be used when parties request the sealing or expungement of court records.

Also, effective this year, there’s a new specialized docket certification.

The changes include:

Increasing technical assistance by the Supreme Court staff in the application process and operation of specialized dockets.

Limiting the period of initial certification to six months or until a determination is made on final certification, whichever occurs first.

Establishing a complaint and decertification process.

Providing further clarification of the duties of a court’s specialized docket advisory committee.

Provide further clarification of the assessment and assignment of candidates for specialized docket participation.

Provide further instruction on the oversight of individuals in a specialized docket program, including participant progression and monitoring.

I’d like to turn now, to proposed rules that are out for public comment that will affect you…if the justices agree upon them.

There are potential changes to Criminal Rule 19.

It would allow magistrates to preside over specialized dockets on a temporary basis, in accordance to restrictions in the Rules of Superintendence.

Criminal Rule 11 would clarify that plea hearings could be conducted using remote communication technology.

Right now, the rule is silent on this issue.

The last rule I want to talk about is Criminal Rule 41.

The change would clarify that applications or returns of search warrants can be conducted using remote technology.

If you want to make your thoughts known please do so. We truly want to know what you think.

In closing, I want to say how much I appreciate the work you are doing, especially in these past 10 months of this global crisis.

I want to recognize a few of you for going above and beyond.

I know Judge (Denise) Moody mentioned him, but I’d like to again thank Judge Pat Carroll from Lakewood Municipal Court.

Judge Carroll has taught 10 Judicial College webinars in throughout 2020.

So, thank you for stepping up.

Due to the pandemic and record unemployment, in the Spring of 2021, we expect an influx of evictions filings, as well as a backlog of civil cases generally.

In anticipation of the increase in these case types, I directed the Office of Court Services to convene stakeholders to analyze projected caseloads, create strategies for backlogs, and modernize court operations through technology.  

One of the recommendations was for the Supreme Court to encourage the use of online dispute resolution (ODR) in foreclosures, landlord-tenant, and eviction cases.

The Supreme Court seeks to reduce in-person mediations and hearings by having parties resolve their cases online without having to enter the courthouse or mediation facilities.

ODR not only decreases in-person hearing dockets for the judges, but reduces in-person mediation needs, administrative tasks for mediation administrators and court staff, and the time it takes to resolve these cases.

We are piloting a secure, online ODR platform that is accessible and mobile-responsive.

The ODR platform will be designed to be implemented in a nimble, flexible manner.

I want to recognize judges who lent their court to pilot the Online Dispute Resolution program that will be focusing on evictions and small claims cases.

Thank you all so very much.

Judge Carla Baldwin of Youngstown Muni and Judge Jon Oldham of Akron Muni will serve as peer courts for specialized dockets.

Also, Licking County Municipal Judges David Stansbury and Matthew George are live-streaming from their courtrooms through the Ohio Virtual Courtroom Directory.

That is a great development for community relations and transparency.

In closing, I’m proud of all the work you’ve been doing to keep the courts open for business.

These times are hard, I don’t have to tell you that.

We all feel a bit isolated.

It’s also strange to not engage directly with people, in seminars like this, as we have in the past.

Instead, we share stories through a computer screen.

The expression is true, though.

“This too shall pass.”

We will get through this.

We will open our courts wider once we all get the vaccines

In the meantime, keep doing your great work, serving your constituents and ensuring safety.

Thank you, for:

Your determination
Your dedication
…and your ingenuity.

Please remember this…

The people of Ohio respect us and look to us to administer justice – and now, to keep them safe.

We at the Ohio Supreme Court will help you in any way that you need. If you have questions, reach out.

If you need guidance…if you need to share stories or best practices, seek us out.

Please enjoy your classes today.

God Bless.