Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Cincinnati Paralegal Association Meeting
Jan. 6, 2021

(Event was on January 6, 2021, with a virtual audience)

Hello, everyone.

I’m honored to address all of you today, and I’m looking forward to taking your questions.

In normal times we would be greeting each other in person – shaking hands and mingling.

Those days will come back, I assure you. Hopefully, soon.

In the meantime, Zoom and similar technologies have been working well these past 10 months.

Technology has kept our courts open.

And technology will help us even more once we get back to normal.

I would like to start with acknowledging the paralegal profession and the critical role you play in the justice system.

When I think about paralegals, several words come to mind.

“Efficiency” and “essential” are two.

Another is “wide-ranging.” You’re expected to know a lot, and do a lot, whether you are working in a small firm, a large one, at a corporation, in government, or at an NGO.

The places you work would be greatly disadvantaged if you were not working, contributing, strategizing, and supporting your colleagues and their clients.

Your field is overwhelmingly women. The latest statistics I saw put the percentage at 87 percent.

That would make paralegal the most female-dominated of any profession in the legal world – by a long shot.

No wonder paralegals perform so well!

I’ve been asked to speak about my career path.

My road to chief justice was not a straight path. It wasn't planned. It wasn’t a goal of mine. And it wasn’t predictable.

I entered law school in 1977 and my class was the first to have more than a few women.

I had my first child after my second year in law school. The day after I graduated, I had my second child. Five months later I took and passed the bar exam.

So, I went to law school and ended up with a degree and two babies.

Looking back, I don't understand how I did it. It didn't seem like a hard thing to do at the time. Maybe I just didn’t appreciate the fact that law school, infants, and being a wife and mother could have been insurmountable challenges.

But I'm someone who looks at challenges as just that:

Something to be dealt with and conquered.

And something to move on from, and learn from.

Post law school and the bar, despite having two young children, I started a small law practice.

I was fortunate to be appointed to defend people accused of criminal offences, had probate clients, did appellate work and represented small businesses.

I worked hard and after several years was asked to apply to become a magistrate in the probate court of Summit County.

Those early years were a great foundation for me. I thoroughly enjoyed practicing law, going to trial, and representing people, helping them with the problems that they could not solve themselves.

I went on to become a judge, then a prosecutor, then lieutenant governor, and then a justice and chief justice.

All would agree that these are great jobs, but I have to admit that I never planned the career I have had. Here’s how it went for me:

With each position/case/client I had I prepared myself every day to understand my job and how I could do it well.

I wanted to not only do the job but to do it well. I tell students on every level what I learned and what I think is the key to any success I’ve had.

Do what you are tasked with doing to the best of your ability, demonstrating commitment, integrity, and intelligence and people will notice.

This is how you grow, learn, improve and ready yourself for whatever life presents.

Then, when opportunities for the next position present themselves, you not only feel competent but are competent to take a chance and give the new opportunity a try.

Decision makers will notice you and consider you for the next opportunity.

Because of my work in the probate court I was asked to apply to become a magistrate.

Because of my work as the prosecuting attorney in Summit County I was asked to join the statewide race as lieutenant governor on the Taft-O’Connor ticket in 1998.

Making a name for yourself that is coupled with the words competent, smart, hard-working and integrity is the secret sauce. It’s really not such a secret.

My career was not one without risks. There were risks.

After my magistrate years, these subsequent jobs were elected positions. My job interviews were conducted by the voters.

I took calculated risks and I encourage others to do so too.

People sometimes ask if being Ohio’s first female chief justice affects the way I carry out my duties.

Actually, it doesn’t.

But I do believe that my service as chief justice sets an example… especially for students. It’s important for kids to see women in powerful position for obvious reasons.  

It’s important that a woman can hold high office and be a role model for girls and women.

I also see it as a way to demonstrate to men that leadership knows no gender.

Girls and women need to know what’s possible. The universe of opportunity is expanding for them. I say this to the many student groups that I speak with.

For me, that’s the most important part of being the state’s first female chief justice.

Girls and women need to know which barriers have been broken, and which ones remain to be challenged.

Some barriers to women are gone and are no longer visible to younger folks, so history lessons are important.

I point out to students the barriers that used to be there – and who fought to remove them.

Last year I spoken quite often about the women’s right to vote and the 100th anniversary of suffrage in 2020.

I reminded my audiences that barriers can come back.

You may not know this …. But women had the right to vote in several American states in the late 1700s. It was taken away by men in state legislatures in the early 19th century – for a very long time.

God bless the suffragists. They worked long and hard, and they were met with fierce resistance, many times by members of their own gender. It took 70-plus years for the suffragists to prevail with ratification of the 19th Amendment. We should not forget the difficulty of their struggle.

Likewise, Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first African American to play professional baseball. There were many who played in the late 1800s.

But when the current major leagues were taking shape in the early 1900s, discrimination was codified.

No Black players were allowed. None. A true color barrier was erected.

This makes Robinson an even greater hero in my mind because in 1947 he broke through a rigid, legalized barrier.

Society had moved backward. Jackie pulled us forward.

This is just my way of saying that social progress doesn’t always move in a straight line.

We often take steps backward. Sometimes those trying to make progress are pushed backward.

There is always opposition to fairness and progress.

And then, there’s complacency.

Sometimes, when we do make progress, not everyone shares in it.

Citizens can be left behind, and their needs can be forgotten.

That’s why so many Americans who lived through the protests of the 1960s had flashbacks last summer after George Floyd died at the hands of police.

The protests reminded us of how much unfinished business exists in the justice system.

What’s different this time is that the outcry for positive change is spread throughout not just those who are victims of discrimination but come from a much wider and deeper base…and it’s taken shape not only in America, but worldwide.

As Americans we’d better effect this change and do it for us and the world. That’s what I hope for in the next 4 years.

You asked me to touch on Supreme Court initiatives and new business, and much of work addresses fairness issues and access to justice.

As you know, the makeup of our Court changed over this past weekend.

Justice Jennifer Brunner was elected in November. I swore her in on Saturday.

When the Court changes like this, you always see a lot of news stories about the political makeup and tone of the Court. You know, Republicans versus Democrats.

There’s simply too much energy expended on that.

A judge’s party affiliation should not come into play when she or he is on the bench. Each case must be decided based on the law and the facts.

If politics or religion or any other personal conflict arises, a judge or justice has a duty to recuse from that case.

I always say that if judges cannot be fair because of strongly held personal beliefs, another line of work would be appropriate.

I get frustrated sometimes at how little many citizens know about the judiciary and the work that all of us do, day in and day out.

There’s a knowledge vacuum there, and the vacuum often gets filled up with this kind of political talk.

Judges and justices wear robes to show impartiality.

What I try to do – as often as I can – is fill that vacuum with information about how the judiciary in Ohio works.

We have a robust Civic Education Section at the Supreme Court that reaches out to middle schools and high schools.

Our staff writes curricula for teachers to use.

They help sponsor moot court and mock trial sessions for students, and they host student groups at our Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus.

Our staff also partners with the League of Women Voters and the state’s news media to produce Judicial Votes Count, a web site that I hope all of you consult when it comes to the election of judges.

The public needs to know more about the courts because knowledge fosters trust – and the success of the American legal system is based on trust.

As paralegals, you know that the legal system is complex.

For one thing, it’s becoming more and more specialized, and that affects you, too.

Specialization is a response to changing social needs.

The best example I can think of is the rise of specialized dockets.

In Ohio, as of today, we have 262 specialized docket courts.

Of those 262 courts, 143 are drug courts.

The numbers alone tell a story.

It’s a story of the judicial system responding to human needs.

This flexibility and willingness to try new ideas and solutions came in handy 11 months ago when the pandemic hit.

By way of background, Every year of the last six years prior to the pandemic I had been granting funds from our budget to help local courts improve their technology. Local courts are chronically short of funds.

When the pandemic hit, I instituted an additional program to increase remote technologies in our courtroom.

We had to act fast, and we could – because we had a system already in place.

I took $6 million of our budget and distributed the funds in 87 of our 88 counties, based on applications.

The result is that we were able to keep our courts open by holding hearings remotely.

The Supreme Court also issued guidelines on social distancing, mask-wearing mandates and so on.

We used our website as an information clearinghouse where all 723 courts in Ohio can exchange information on what was working and where improvements could be made.

Our news service, Court News Ohio, carried stories, photos and videos of how local courts were getting it done and keeping justice flowing.

And as justices, we set an example by holding oral argument via Zoom.

We heard every scheduled case last year with no delays or postponements.

Yes, jury trials have slowed down and many cases have been continued.

But, overall, our fight against the pandemic has gone far better than any of us could have imagined.

In fact, I want to build on that success when the pandemic is over.

The task force we’ve formed is called iCOURT. The letters stand for:

Improving

Court

Operations

Using

Remote

Technology

It’s a catchy and fun name, but the goal is serious:

Gather up all the good ideas – along with things that didn’t work out – and come up with lessons learned that can be shared across our state and across the country.

Let’s just say it’s not the crisis we wanted but maybe it’s the crisis we needed…positive things will emerge not only for the courts but for almost every aspect of our society.

Our court system is in constant learning mode.

The iCOURT is just one of three active task forces going on right now at the Supreme Court.

Late last year I convened the Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review.

Our Task Force to Examine the Ohio Bail System has been at work longer. Last year, 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.

This is a really big change and our success shows the power of getting great minds together in our state to take on matters where justice isn’t being served.

The Task Force on Conviction Integrity and Postconviction Review just started late last year, but it’s moving quickly to examine and discuss best practices across the country.

Sometime in the spring we’ll have a report outlining what 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.

Those of you with friends and family members in the business world know that statistics are the lifeblood of business – as well as in sports and in many sectors of government.

Yet, in Ohio, we have no standardized data and collection methodology on racial fairness in arrests, pretrial detention, pleas, and sentencing.

No other state has an adequate system, either, but several are at work on it. Nearly every state at one time or another has called for a database of its own, but progress has been slow.

It’s been slow or non-existent for about 30 years.

But the death of George Floyd and the inhumanity cast upon so many others in our society, particularly people of color, has awakened the calls for justice in our nation.

We have so much work to do to achieve basic fairness in our system.

I don’t believe we can get there without statistics, without measurement of where we are.

After all my years in service to the judiciary, I can tell you this: We are getting smarter in the way we are running our courts.

But we still have gaps that need to be closed.

We need hard data to close those gaps.

At the same time, we need to educate people about the challenges inherent in the criminal justice system.

Our drug courts are a good example. Lending drug abusers a hand – and showing them a pathway out – means changing attitudes toward punishment.

Our drug courts have succeeded because we have relied on science to help us understand addiction.

We have engaged local medical communities to help.

We have charted our progress and our failures.

And we have been transparent about our processes so that everyone can learn.

This includes citizens, legislators and those in the justice system.

We’re so transparent that our staff even produced a movie about Ohio drug courts.

If you haven’t seen it already, go to our website, sc.ohio.gov.

It’s there on the main page. The title is Second Chances. It’s won awards, including an Emmy, and you’ll benefit from watching it.

Before I take your questions, I want to applaud this group for holding regular meetings and keeping in touch with each other as professionals.

You have placed information exchange and continuing education into your mission statement, so bravo for that.

Mentoring and information sharing is so critical to the legal world. Keep up that great work.

Sharing triumphs and failures is a way to grow mutually within your profession. It moves the entire system forward.

It has certainly helped the Ohio judiciary during this pandemic.

I also want to congratulate you on your pro bono efforts.

Pro bono is an effort that is dear to my heart.

It seems like all of you are doing the right things and moving in the right direction.

Thanks again for listening, and now I’ll take your questions.