Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Association of Municipal and County Judges of Ohio Winter Conference
January 26, 2022

Congratulations to all the judges who were installed this morning as officers and trustees of the organization. You are in the capable hands of a new president Judge Brian F. Hagan of the Rocky River Municipal Court.

I have worked with Judge Hagen on the Task Force to Examine Bail and other matters and applaud your choice. 

That reminds me that there are many municipal judges who actively participate in commissions and task forces, and for that I am grateful and say thank you.

Thanks to the Executive Director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, Paul Pfeifer for administering the oaths of office.

Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to remember Judge Dominic Frank.

Judge Frank was a dedicated judge. His obituary reads, “Dom was a family-oriented father with an amazing sense of humor and was always there for those who needed him”.

I’m sure that he was a friend to many in this room. He will be missed.

I’m pleased to be with you today.           

Because the number of new COVID cases averages a rate of over 20,000 per day, I am remote. We are also holding oral arguments remotely this week.

It’s done for two reasons:

But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to share some ideas for the coming year.

At least once a day someone remarks that they can hardly believe we are heading into the third year of this global pandemic. 

Three things I have learned in the pandemic:

  1. We are stronger and more capable than we may have thought possible.
  2. The foundation of the legal system remains strong, regardless of the forces we cannot control.
  3. There will not be a “return to normal” – at least not the 2019 version of normal.  Through perseverance, we have a new normal and it must involve adopting technology, human compassion, and the ability to embrace change.

You are stronger and more capable than you may have thought.  You have done good work in the past year, amid great challenges.

There are 20 among you who attended the December 2021 New Judges Orientation.  A couple of your colleagues who exemplify your dedication are:

It’s this kind of tenacity that defines you.

And whether you are new to the bench or a seasoned veteran, you have worked hard to move into the new normal. 

I thank you for your service to the judiciary and to your communities. And I urge you to keep up the good work.

Even if it has to be virtual.

Virtual Proceedings

The Supreme Court and courts of all jurisdictions have a lot in common when it comes to the use of technology.

Local courts across the state have done a tremendous job of adapting to technology. And while many were forced to move into the technology faster than they normally would have, there is a benefit we are seeing. It is greater access to justice.

Magistrate Kathleen Lenski of Montgomery County Juvenile Court can tell you how video proceedings have helped parents with health issues during important cases involving their children.

One mother receiving cancer treatment attended her hearing from her hospital bed. Another mother who was paralyzed in an accident needed to be in court to transfer custody of her children to their grandmother. She couldn’t be transported to the hearing.  But she was transported via Zoom. It meant a lot to her to be in the process.

Virtual courtrooms have been a “win” for people who don’t have to pay their lawyer to travel an hour each way for a ten-minute status hearing. And people strapped to pay the bills can take a break from work to attend court rather than losing an entire day’s pay.

It doesn’t work in every situation. In some domestic matters, where a child is testifying, there is no substitute for a face-to-face, eye-to-eye, in person conversation with a compassionate judge.

And there are some crazy stories, too.  A lawyer smoking a cigar during an online hearing, a defendant who shows up in a tank top, lawyers too, dressing a bit too casual for a court appearance.  But managing the decorum of the courtroom happens in live settings, too.

I know you all have some crazy stories.  I’ve heard them over the years. 

But there is one story that I never tire of telling. Since 2015 when I started the Tech Grant program, we have granted $32 million in tech grants to local courts.

In the spring of 2020, in light of Covid-19 we acted quickly, and we distributed approimately $6 million in grants to acquire tech capabilities for courts. Laptops, Zoom licenses, cameras, etc.

And then we distributed $8.6 million to local courts for tech in 2021. Every court that applied for a grant got one.

And many of you did great things with that money. 

And there are more ways to implement change using technology.

The Task Force for Improving Court Operations Using Technology -- now referred to as the ICOURT Task Force has released a task force report that includes 97 recommendations on how and why we should continue to use technology going forward. I often ask why 97?  Couldn’t it have been 100?

No matter, the report is a great resource.  You can read it online on our website at sc.ohio.gov.

It’s 600 plus pages so you probably don’t want to print it.  But if you need a hard copy, please contact the Supreme Court and we will get one to you. 

From online court to texting appearance reminders, you are doing good things that help people and make the Court’s operations user friendly and cost effective. 

And if your court wants to do more, remember that the application for the next round of funding is open now through February 16. 

My vision is for local courts to tap into the innovations that make the judicial process open and accessible. Technology can do that. 

So, I’m asking you today, to continue to work with technology to use it to make the legal process more efficient. When new technology emerges, don’t fear it.  Be glad you can take more time to learn it than we could in 2020, and embrace it, for the good of justice.

I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the work of your members.

Eviction and Landlord Tenant Successes

I want to recognize the Akron Municipal Court for its robust participation in the Online Dispute Resolution pilot.  The program gets the landlord and tenant together before an eviction hearing to see if a resolution can be reached.

Akron has embraced the concept and made a concerted effort, and it shows. They are outpacing even larger counties in getting cases resolved.  If it is keeping a roof over a family’s head and ensuring the landlord is getting paid, that is a good outcome.

There are 8 municipal courts in different stages of the pilot program. And the pilot includes tips and best practices from these courts which will become a part of a toolkit so that you can bring online dispute resolution to your court. 

The Akron Municipal judges approved the pilot and Magistrate Angela Hardway leads the initiative there.  Angela works with fellow Magistrates Jennifer Towell and Kani Hightower of Akron Municipal Court who preside over eviction hearings four days a week, holding 20 to 30 each morning.

To manage the pace, 15 to 20 people populate the magistrate’s screen simultaneously.  It’s similar to the way groups of tenants, landlords, and lawyers appear in a physical courtroom.

There is a great deal of information on our website under Services to Ohio Courts in the section about Dispute Resolution.  That includes names and contact information if you need more.

At the Supreme Court we are always looking for ways to increase access to justice.  Now, through February 23 applications are being accepted for more grants to organizations that provide legal assistance to people with housing and health care issues. 

The money can also be used for self-help centers in courts, consumer debt defense programs, and legal assistance for kinship caregivers.

The Civil Justice Program Fund grants are available in increments between $50,000 – $100,000.  Please make people in your community aware of this opportunity to help low-income Ohioans.

The hand up now may be what keeps them out of your court in the future.  

Anyone who needs assistance with the application can email:  TechGrant@sc.ohio.gov or reach out to Linda Flickinger whose contact information is on the Supreme Court of Ohio website.

When I talk about how important it is for all of us to bring our compassion to the job, I am thinking about compassion directly to the people least able to cope with the changes in our world and more likely to wind up in front of you.

Those with Mental Illness

That’s why I was pleased to see on your agenda, the session on Understanding Mental Illness with Dr. Smith.  Mental illness, and/or drug and alcohol dependency, and homelessness have always been underlying issues that show up in your court.  And sometimes they can be difficult to spot.

Please be aware of the increase in these issues during this time of COVID, so that you can be part of the solution.

This is where some compassion comes in. People have different levels of fortitude. For many, catching COVID, quarantine or isolating at home, or isolating out of fear of COVID can be lonely, scary, and depressing. During times of uncertainty or anxiety, people sometimes look to alleviate stress by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, overeating, gambling, and sometimes striking out against others.  Researchers are seeing trends related to isolation of which we need to be aware.

One unique form of isolation illness is highlighted in an article published in Scientific American just this week about Hikikomori [He-kee-koh-more-ee].

This is a form of severe social withdrawal or isolation which resembles social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia.

Hikikomori [He-kee-koh-more-ee] was originally identified in Japan about two decades ago, as a psychiatric disorder largely characterized by adolescents and young adults who became recluses in their parents’ homes.

They were unable to go to work or school for months or years. Appropriate social skills become damaged. 

As a result of COVID, researchers are beginning to expand their view of Hikikomori [He-kee-koh-more-ee] to include any person who is homebound most of the day, nearly every day, for six months or more.

These isolated people have an increased incidence of self-harming, domestic violence, and in extreme cases, violence to others.

The pandemic has made life more uncertain. Veterans with PTSD, and a variety of others suffering from mental health issues come before you and need your human compassion.

They need to be accountable for their actions. And many times, while being accountable on community control, they may also need other services. 

Please keep abreast of the resources in your community and in the state.  Be a partner with the providers to provide ‘wrap around’ services.  Your community will be better for it.

I’m going to close with a plea to focus on Voter Education.

Voter Education

It is of vital importance to educate potential voters and encourage them to learn about the candidates and VOTE. 

This is not about WHO to vote for. I am asking you to get out into your community and educate people about judicial voting.

If you’re encouraging folks to vote, they will invariably say I don’t vote because I don’t know about the candidates. Well we have a solution to that problem. It’s called JudicialVotesCount.com.

Encourage people to vote in judicial elections.

There’s an election coming up this year for common pleas, appellate and supreme court. It’s a great time to get out in the community.

Our research tells us that most Ohio voters who don’t vote for judges say it is because they feel they don’t know enough about the candidates.  This is an area where we can all make a difference.

Besides encouraging voting, talk to people about the job. Encouraging voting and judicialvotescount.com could be the end segment of remarks when you’re educating the public about just what you do as a judge. 

Your day job is an interesting topic for remarks to the local service clubs like the Rotary or other local groups. Let people know the good their elected public servant does!

And encourage people to learn about judicial candidates.

Today, I am urging you to get involved in voter education not just at election time, but year-round.

Speak to local groups in your community, direct them to judicialvotescount.com.

This is a comprehensive, non-partisan, repository where anyone can look up Ohio judicial candidates to learn about their background. There’s nothing like it in the country.

Encourage everyone to log on, click on their county and learn about the candidates for the judiciary. It’s as simple as that. 

You are the best person to be educating voters about how to learn about candidates for judge.

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

I appreciate your time and attention today.

Continue to do more than you thought possible. Continue to represent the justice system in a way that keeps its strong foundation of access and fairness.

And embrace change. It is inevitable.

I should know. 

Just like the fact that this is the last time I will be addressing the association of municipal judges at their winter conference.

I will be leaving my job due to the age limitations in our Constitution. 

My inevitable change is the end of my time as chief justice and a public servant. I’ve been a public servant since 1985 and I’ve had a good run. I’m grateful. 

So, If I can embrace that change, there’s nothing you can’t embrace.

You have proven you can go mightily into the tech future. 

Keep up the great work.

God bless.