Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Columbus Bar Foundation Dinner
March 10, 2022

Good evening.

Tonight, there are people in Russia praying for the people of Ukraine.

There are people in Ukraine praying for the people of Russia.

And we pray for them all.  It is a prayer of hope, for peace, for safety and security, and a future of self-governance that we, as Americans have known all our lives.

Self-Governance

This idea of self-governance is relatively new to Ukraine.  The country recently celebrated 30 years of independence from the former Soviet Union.  30 years pales in comparison as the United States approaches its 250th anniversary. Still, there are lessons for Americans, as we watch the war on the other side of the world.  Freedom, independence, and self-governance are not automatic. They do not come easily.  And they do not come without responsibility.

I am so pleased to be invited to speak to you tonight – I honor your commitment to Civic education, which really is born out of your commitment to citizenship.

Citizenship education is a compulsory element of education throughout Europe, North America, parts of South America, the Pacific, and Russia. It is not unique to America.

Citizenship education should:

In the United States, our Constitution calls on us to do both.

While our constitution did not begin as an inclusive document it has been amended to be so and to protects everyone’s rights equally.

Goal tonight

In a few minutes you are going to hear from Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham.  His life’s work is telling the stories of our history and through his writing, showing us paths to being a good citizen.  Such important work.  And there is a hunger for it.  His recent portrait of U.S. Congressman John Lewis and his role in the struggle for civil rights having reached number one on the New York Times Best seller list demonstrates that.

I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about how we preserve democracy and the rule of law when the public discourse become loud, impolite, even caustic.

I sit on the Supreme Court of Ohio, as the Chief Justice.  I know controversy.  Think of it; in my job, people only come when they have a problem that they can’t solve themselves… – Whether the problem is criminal in nature or civil there are always people on opposite sides of an issue. The one thing that they have in common though is that everyone who gathers has faith in our system of justice. Everyone who gathers must trust in the laws and the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Ohio.

Ultimately, these documents guide us in every dispute.

And civic education is just the beginning step to learning about citizenship and thereby continuing a path to being not just a citizen but an informed citizen.

As an informed citizen you must make sure that you continue to do your homework.  Stay abreast of issues and learn, investigate, be a lifelong civic education learner. An important caveat:  get your information from a variety of sources…and ascertain if the source is objective reporting or editorial in content.  Please always know the difference…

Use the state and federal Constitutions as your tools to answer what it means to be an American. Remember that every time you invoke a constitutional right, it has on balance a responsibility.

The United States Constitution

You all know the first words of the U.S. Constitution: “We the people.”

It tells us right off the bat that it is up to us.

And it goes on to say: “In order to form a more perfect union,”

It’s a reminder that while it is up to us, it is up to us together – to find common goals – to find the common good.

In recent years, as I watch some of the divide in our country, I wonder about the unwillingness to negotiate and compromise for the greater good.

I worry that people are trying to learn citizenship from the dictionary rather than the Constitution.

The dictionary defines freedom as: “the power to act, speak, or think as one wants, without hindrance or restraint.”  Yes, so true.

But the dictionary doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Constitution, though, gives us the whole recipe for how to build a more perfect union.

It never promises citizenship is easy.

Someone who called the court recently asked our staff why the Supreme Court was “getting involved” in the ongoing court case regarding redistricting.  Our staff member pointed them to the article in the state constitution that mandates our involvement. The caller remarked, “There’s just too much to know.”

Yes, there’s a lot to know.  More than you can learn in fourth grade civics or a half-credit of high school American government.

We must learn about our citizenship practically daily and how often do we hear the phrase, practice your citizenship…which means embrace it and live it and you do that by staying informed.

And as I mentioned before, you will be a smarter citizen if you are not getting all your information from one news source – or from one source that gives it to you only in 280 characters.

There’s homework before every election and when important decisions are being made in your community or state and guess what?

That homework must be done all our lives to make knowledgeable decisions about who will represent us, the implications of laws being passed, how court decisions impact those laws. And much more. 

We are a part of something bigger than ourselves.  And that requires us to think bigger, and sometimes more critically.

I’m using critical to mean analysis of merits and fault. NOT criticize, as expressing adverse or disapproving comments.

Critical Race Theory

So, let me give you an example:  Critical Race theory.  [pause]

I said the words and I saw some of you bristle.  The words Critical Race Theory is a hot topic these days.  A cable news channel mentioned the phrase 900 times in one month in 2021. That phrase became the looming threat for people unwilling to acknowledge the history of racism in our country.

What followed was legislation.  In 2021, 36 states had legislation passed or pending against critical race theory.  Most of these laws do not mention those words. In Ohio, House Bill 322 and 327 are pending.

Have you heard the phrase?

If I had asked that in 2020, the answer would be a resounding “No”.  Yet Critical Race Theory is not new. It is born of a 50-year-old seminar at Harvard Law whereby legal scholars and students looked with a critical eye at the law, jurisprudence, and justice.

A Harvard lecturer, who would be come the Law School’s first Black tenured professor published a casebook titled, “Race, Racism, and American Law”, which examined unifying themes in civil rights litigation throughout American history.

In the 50 years since the discussion over how racism is embedded in laws and justice, there has been discourse, mainly by legal scholars and philosophers about critical race theory.  Discourse among people who were educating themselves, studying and discussing the legal and philosophical implications of fairness and equality in justice and social institutions. 

Then, one day in 2021, some pundit grabs a phrase, and a cable news channel says it stands for Black supremacy. And the rules of civility and intellectual reason go out the window.

My point is not to sway you one way or another about “critical race theory”.  My point is to challenge you to dig deeper. When you hear a phrase or concept, proclaimed like a mantra – dig deeper.

Let us all look with a critical eye – analyzing merits and faults of issues, get your information from a variety of sources.  Discuss politely with other people who have done their homework.

Resilience and Flexibility

I consider constitutional questions every day. 

I marvel every day at the language set down by the Founding Fathers.  At the structure of government – as well as protections from government – that they gave us. 

The founding fathers could never have imagined what is happening in the world today.

When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, it was replete with racism and sexism.  The document defining our country was written in a culture of slavery, freedom for men but not women, and certainly not people of color. The indigenous people were nearly wiped from the face of the land.

It took a civil war to begin to end the practice of white people owning Black people.

The history of injustice in America is undisputable.  But it also proves that our defining documents are both flexible to change and resilient. 

Our founding fathers were not all friends and did not think alike.  There were petty jealousies and regional favoritism at work and political parties with different political philosophies.  Sounds like 2022! But here’s the good part about 1787, they negotiated, they worked to think outside themselves.  We know it got heated – both figuratively and literally – in that Constitutional Congress.

And what they settled on was a basic set of principles and a system to amend the document as times change.

And amended it was to include Black and female citizens.

What a perceptive view of their here and now and of the unknown future.

Judicial Votes Count

We must also pursue ways to make civic education accessible. I had an idea about a tool that would increase voter knowledge of the judicial candidates back in 2012. That idea became judicialvotescount.com

Our research tells us that most Ohio voters who don’t vote for judges don’t because they feel they don’t know enough about the candidates.

JudicialVotesCount.com is merely the first of its kind website that will tell you information about the people who want to be judges…the people who want your vote!

There will be information submitted by the candidate themselves…and if a candidate fails to submit their information, well that tells you something too!

This is a comprehensive, non-partisan, repository where anyone can look up Ohio judicial candidates to learn about their background.

Let’s work together to make sure that everyone in your community has a chance to feel the power of their informed vote. Spread the word about JudicialVotesCount.com.

Conclusion

Civil education is critical to an enduring democracy.

Citizenship education and participation is a life’s work.

Because caring about your community, your state and your country never stops. Who do you want to make decisions about topics that affect your daily life?

The most wonderful thing about our citizenship is our right to vote yet we don’t use it. Typically, young people aged 18-24 have the lowest voter turnout…about 50%. Show up, vote, and get others to do the same.

To protect your citizenship, you must vote and being an educated citizen translates into being an educated voter.

Civic education is life-long. Decisions are to be made. 

I ask you a final question: When a decision must be made,

If not you, who?