Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio State Bar Association General Assembly Meeting
May 10, 2022

Good afternoon. Thank you, President (David) Lefton.

It is good to be back with you in person and I am pleased to be able to address several areas of importance. There is so much to report from the Ohio judiciary but in the interest of time I will limit my remarks to specific topics.

Overall, there is evidence – historical, statistical evidence -- that the U.S. Criminal Justice System is fairer and more effective than ever.

Yet we can do better.

For the public to be informed and for truth to win out over rumor and fiction, people must be able to see justice administered fairly, and understand how that is measured.

I know there is no substitute for the discretion that comes with human understanding of the unique circumstances of a legal situation and the individuals involved.

But an experienced judge who also has data: information about trends, what works and what does not, and how their rulings fall compared to norms - can be more effective and part of a more trusted system.

Data will allow analysis of a system that heretofore has had limited analysis.

The recommendation to examine how well the entire system works has been made here in Ohio since 1999.

In the complicated and multi-faceted criminal justice system without data there is truly no way to know how well all segments of that system are doing.

Whether what we are doing is hitting the mark, is making a positive difference, is leading to the intended consequences and is the system demonstrating the responsible and intelligent use of our resources.

What we are seeking is transparency.

I’m sure you’ve all listened to NPR and heard Marketplace. It’s a business program that informs about newsworthy items in the business world.  Kai Ryssdal is the host. When he wants to explain an event that affects business, to put things in context, he invariably says, “Let’s do the numbers.”

Why? Because numbers…another name for data, tells us what we want and need to know.

Collecting data is essential if a business is to survive, grow, and prosper. Why should the criminal justice system be any different?

What is being done today and what is envisioned in the coming years, will empower people within the justice system, not only judges, to do their jobs with a perspective that they have never had.

Why is this important? Because it’s not just about a system, the criminal justice system…it’s about peoples’ lives because people are the core of the system.

Defendants, victims, judges and court personnel, prosecutors and defense attorneys, law enforcement, treatment professionals, corrections, probation and the list goes on. And let’s not forget about the taxpayer.

I envision that to be a true picture, that data collected from the arrest, to the charges the prosecutor makes, to the pre-trial proceedings, to the disposition, sentencing, post sentence, community control, and beyond are all necessary.

Right now, we are starting with sentencing data but that is not the end.

Those of us who have been entrusted with the duty to lead and participate in the criminal justice system have an obligation to make sure there is public trust that the system delivers justice for all…and data collection will make that happen.

The establishment and widespread use of databases will advance the fair and equitable administration of justice.  To that end, the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission’s work, collecting felony sentencing data in a standardized manner, continues.  In an article posted on the Sentencing Commission website, Sara Andrews calls felony sentencing data in Ohio “a complicated web.”

State and local systems came up with their own structures and ways of logging records. These unconnected and un-coordinated silos cannot produce aggregate data.  Case-level results cannot be determined, and comparisons of types of cases cannot be made.

This project simply put will collect data and also reach into the digital silos and connect the information.

The Ohio Revised Code that covers sentencing has grown to over 3,000 words in the last 25 years.  But it is not just more words.  It has grown from 16 sections to 39 sections – with 46 subsections today.  As I said sentencing is complex.

The Ohio Sentencing Commission has been working tirelessly to create a standardized Sentencing Data Base collection for sentencing and conviction entries. And it has worked to develop the software system to begin the analysis and ability to aggregate data.

As of last count, over 88 common pleas judges from 41 counties have participated in informational sessions or are currently testing the system.  The commission is listening to their questions and input, to understand and importantly – to preserve – the independence and discretion of the judge.

The development team is identifying similarities and variables and sharing insights.

The Criminal Sentencing Commission in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati have been, with the input of judges, lawyers, and laymen and women moving forward with the data collection project. They are getting input from judges who are testing the system and practitioners in the areas of law, IT, and criminal justice policy. A broad range of voices and ideas are important to making sure they get it right.

The ultimate implementation of the Database will rely on anonymized data that will be available to the public to offer an accurate picture of how our criminal justice system is working.  The foremost goal of our criminal justice system is the fair application of our laws to every person who comes before the court. Data address that goal and so much more.  Like any large-scale operation in the private sector, it is imperative that the judiciary and the legislature rely on data to assess the performance of our criminal justice system, the appropriate allocation of resources, and its projected success in the future.

If you have questions or want to learn more about the system, don’t hesitate to ask.  You can contact Sara Andrews at the Sentencing Commission. Her contact information is on our website – just google Ohio Sentencing Commission.  She is happy to walk you through it.  And if you have feedback, you can provide that, too.

Also, there are proposed amendments to the Rules of Superintendence for Courts related to the Ohio Sentencing Data Platform.  The Commission is taking public comment through the end of June.

I am proud of the members of the judiciary who are part of these pilot efforts, embracing data.  I am also proud of the courts that have embraced technology. Providing greater access to the courts and our decision-making is a path to greater faith in our system and a path that we must pursue.

Technology

If there’s one thing to be said about the pandemic, it gave us two years in which technology “zoomed” forward.  Pun intended.

Technology, with all its fast-developing capabilities, can never replace the minds at the bar or on the bench.  But it can provide the capacity to improve the operation of the courts, thereby improving service to the public, the bench and the bar.

In 2015, I began distributing technology grants for courts around Ohio.  We have learned that the administration of justice can embrace technology like every other institution that provides a service.

This fact was driven home by the events of the past two years. Courts went from a system that was technology-driven to technology-dependent.  We needed it to keep going.  Courtrooms adopted technology at record speed.

Once the benefit of technology was demonstrated… it was here to stay in our justice system. It then was necessary to examine how best to move forward with its use in the Courts.

The 25-member iCourts task force was formed with the mission to review Ohio courts' use of technology to ensure the continued and effective operation of the judicial system during the COVID-19 pandemic and to make recommendations regarding the use of such technology in the future.

It surveyed thousands of judges, court officials, attorneys, litigants, and justice partners, such as guardians, interpreters, and probation officers.

The goal was to learn about needs and opportunities as well as technical hurdles, practical and legal concerns, and to reimagine how courts could better administer and ensure justice going forward.

The task force came up with 97 detailed recommendations for courts to join the digital 21st century.  Some recommendations became rules that will go into effect July first.

In the next couple of weeks, we will issue the 2022 Tech Grants to courts. Since I started the Tech Grant program in 2015, the Supreme Court has provided more than $35 million to local courts for everything from improving court security to case management to greater service to the public and the bar. Imagine the benefit of electronic filing and online dockets…without tech grants some courts would still be a paper only system.

Training and Professional Growth

Beginning in July, the cap on online CLE is lifted permanently.  This change is meant to make it less burdensome to meet the educational requirements incumbent upon all who are admitted to the bar of Ohio.  Admittedly in person education is still good for learning while also networking and building relationships. But to the extent that electronic delivery enables you to do more training because of ease of access, and to explore new concepts in justice, please take advantage.

Now I’d like to introduce a valuable new member of the leadership staff at the Supreme Court.

The newly created position of Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will lead the development and implementation of a comprehensive, strategic, and programmatic vision that advances and promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion within the Supreme Court of Ohio and the Ohio judicial branch.

The Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a new position and will serve as the primary staff member to lead efforts to create, plan, implement, monitor, and evaluate programs related to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The new director will build a foundational program to promote values and construct strategies and policies to achieve diversity and inclusion in all courts of Ohio.

The new program will address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, culture, region, religious or spiritual beliefs, disability, age, gender (including transgender), and sexual orientation/sexual identity (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, etc.), within the court system.

Work in close consultation with the Administrative Director to facilitate considerations of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the formulation and adoption of rules, policies, procedures, practices, and communications for the court system, including a recognition of the role that court access plays in a robust diversity strategy.

Partner with the Director of Human Resources and the Director of the Ohio Judicial College to develop and strengthen existing education of judges and employees at all levels of the judicial branch on how to recognize, appreciate, and accommodate diversity, equity, and inclusion in carrying out the judiciary’s mission.

Dr Adrianne Fletcher Adrianne Fletcher, the newest member of the Supreme Court, as approved by the Justices. Adrianne will serve as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Prior to joining the Supreme Court, Adrianne was the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion as well as an Assistant Professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences (the Mandel School) at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU).

Adrianne earned her doctorate degree from Loyola University Chicago and her master’s degree from the Mandel School at CWRU.

Dr. Fletcher will you please stand and welcome.

I often speak about how the work we do impacts the public confidence in the judiciary, our courts, and our system of justice…both criminal and civil.

Studies tell us that most people will have two or fewer interactions with the legal system in their lives.

Often it is anticipated: buying their home, having a will prepared, divorce, or an estate.

Other times it is not:  Involvement with the legal system takes on the trappings of an emergency.

Join me in reminding them that whether the involvement is planned or the unexpected happens, they want a justice system that is transparent, fair, and provides equal access to every citizen.

Make the point in your words and in your deeds.  Commit to improve the civility of our profession with your every interaction: judge and parties on both sides of a case, attorney to attorney, attorney to client, and person to person in every facet of life.

Manners, decorum, and politeness are good habits both in the courtroom and in life. We can’t always control the other guy.  But we can each commit to civility in our own interactions.

Programs like this one is a great example of what I’m talking about.

A day where members of the bar can engage in civil discussions with members of the legislature…breaking bread, listening to ideas, agreeing to an open dialog all promote the way government should work with its citizens.

Respecting the role of the legislature and the legislature welcoming input from the OSBA and its members.

Thank you for your work and the OSBA’s work over the last couple of years, especially.

I personally want to thank Mary Augsburger and the OSBA for being a willing partner in many of the initiatives mandated by the pandemic. Thank you for your flexibility and adaptations through the pandemic. And thank you for making a uniquely American legal system even stronger.