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Justice Speeches

Ashtabula County Off-Site Court
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
April 24, 2019

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ashtabula County Off-Site Court
April 24, 2019


Good morning, attorneys and judges.

I'm Maureen O'Connor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Thank you for inviting the Supreme Court to Ashtabula County. We have three cases today that I think students will find interesting.

We have eight high schools represented. It's an impressive turnout.

I would like to begin with the introduction of my colleagues ? in order of seniority.

Then, we'll have a question-and-answer period with you.

I am the 10th chief justice in Ohio and the first woman to have this honor. I was elected in 2016 to my second six-year term as chief justice after being elected twice as a justice.

Prior to coming to the Court I served as a magistrate, a trial judge and a prosecuting attorney. I then became lieutenant governor and director of the Department of Public Safety.

Justice Sharon Kennedy joined the Court in 2012 and was elected to her first full term in 2014. Previously, she served on the Butler County Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Division, in Hamilton, north of Cincinnati.

Justice Judith French joined the Court in 2013 and was elected to her first full term in 2014. Prior to her service with us, she was a judge on the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Columbus.

Justice Pat Fischer became a Justice in 2017. He previously served on the First District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Justice Pat DeWine also started his term two years ago, and he also comes from the First District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and from the trial court.

This is the first Off-Site Court for our two newest members, who were elected to terms that began this year.

Justice Michael Donnelly was a judge on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland.

Justice Melody Stewart served as a judge on the Eighth District Court of Appeals, also in Cleveland.

Now, I will turn it over to you students.

Who has the first question?


We are delighted to be in Geneva for oral arguments today.

This is the first time that our Off-Site Court program has visited Ashtabula County.

It is our 76th session of Off-Site Court, a tradition that began in 1987.

Our usual venue is our Courtroom in Columbus. But as our television audience and web viewers can see, we are in an auditorium.

We're happy to be hearing three cases today at Geneva High School, where the faculty, staff and students have given us a warm welcome.

The purpose of Off-Site Court is to provide students and community members with an in-person look at Ohio's high court.

The Justices and I want all Ohioans to learn more about our justice system. Taking oral arguments on the road is one way to accomplish that.

The Court hears oral arguments at high schools rather than local courthouses so that more members of the public and more students could take part. Auditoriums are great venues for our purposes.

We're happy to be here in the most-northern and most-northeastern county in Ohio.

This fall, Off-Site Court moves to the northwestern corner of our state ? to Williams County.

At this time, I want to say thank-you to

Geneva Schools Superintendent Eric Kujala

Principal Doug Wetherholt

And Assistant Principal Tony Markijohn

I also want to thank the superintendents, principals, and staff from the eight Ashtabula County high schools in attendance for lending us their students for the morning.

The visiting high schools are:

Grand Valley
Pymatuning Valley
...and Ashtabula County Technical & Career Campus

The teachers from each school received preview articles about our three cases several weeks ago and worked with their students to understand the issues being brought before us today.

The teachers and students also received instructional help from local attorneys.

Thanks as well to ...

The Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judges ....
Judge Thomas Harris
Judge Marianne Sezon
....and Judge Gary Yost

County Juvenile and Probate Judge Albert Camplese

Ashtabula Municipal Court Judge Laura DiGiacomo

Conneaut Municipal Judge Carl DiFranco.

County Court Eastern Division Judge Harold Specht Junior

....and County Court Western Division Judge David Schroeder.

Ashtabula County is served by the Eleventh District Court of Appeals, based in Warren.

I would like to acknowledge the bench of the Eleventh District:

Judge Timothy Cannon
Judge Matt Lynch
Judge Cynthia Westcott Rice
Judge Mary Jane Trapp
....and Judge Thomas Wright


Hannah (Caudill), those were inspiring remarks.

I always love to hear students' perspectives.

Students are the prime reason we hold these Court sessions on the road. I'm always grateful to hear from - and about -- hard-working students.

Off-Site Court is one of the most important endeavors of the Supreme Court of Ohio. Before I speak to you about how we plan to increase the Court's outreach to schools, I would like to say many more thank-yous.

We are grateful to the eight school districts who made arrangements for their students to be with us today.

I would like to especially thank our hosts ....

Thank you, to all of the educators not only for preparing students for today's session but for preparing students for life beyond high school, wherever that takes them.

We can't hold Off-Site Court without the safety coordination of local law enforcement. I would like to recognize ....

Ashtabula County Sheriff William Johnson.

Geneva Police Chief Greg Wiley

The chief of police in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Timothy Bruckman.

And Ohio State Patrol Lieutenant and Post Commander Tina Jackson.

I also want to recognize three staffers from the Supreme Court:

Civic Education Manager Sara Stiffler

The Marshal of the Court, Jason Thomas

...and Court Security Manager Ryan Fahle.

Thanks to all of you for making today's event go smoothly.

Now, I would like to recognize the judges of the Eleventh District Court of Appeals who are with us this afternoon.

Our partners at Ohio Government Television arrived here Monday night and created a studio in the school yesterday. They deserve recognition for ensuring that broadcast went so well today.

Each oral argument session, including Off-Site Court, is streamed live and archived on So, you can enjoy this morning's proceedings for many years to come.

We deal with our present, and we plot our future, by making decisions based on our collective level of education - as well as our dedication to principles like fairness and equality.

We study our circumstances - and as we try to peer into our future - as we continually evaluate our past.

We continue to evaluate our unique American society. That's a very good thing.

Before addressing the luncheons that follow Off-Site Court I study the local history.

And you have such a rich history here.

Being on the lake, your community has always been on the forefront of trade.

It's fitting that the current U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, hails from Ashtabula, because your area's trading chops go back a long way - nearly 300 years.

With ample grazing lands in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, you established a thriving dairy industry.

Then you combined the two - commerce and farming - to teach fellow Ohioans and Americans how to boost the local economy through exports.

Your main product was cheese ? the dairy product that travels well.

You combined craftsmanship with transportation to create one of the most beautiful covered bridge landscapes in the country.

I always like to delve into the legal side of local history.

With so many attorneys and judges in attendance, let's look at some instances of judicial innovation from days past.

In June of 1860, the Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph reported the conclusion of a case that was typical of the times - except that it produced two hung juries before a verdict was reached in the third trial.

That was until the dog was - quote ? "was suspected of helping himself to choice mutton meals occasionally."

The mutton came from the sheep herd of Mister Hart, who was accused of doing away with the hungry canine.

Bane sued for damages. But twice, well-attended jury trials fell one vote short of deciding for Mister Bane.

Then, quote - "new testimony was adduced which damaged the dog's good repute and a verdict for the defendant was rendered by the jury."

Seems the dog had a criminal past.

This case appeared on the same docket as a horse theft and a guilty finding against a man for stealing honey.

Here's a good one from 1869: A plaintiff sought and won $50 in damages for investing in a fraudulent patent. The jury found that he had been "humbugged" - or tricked ? out of his money.

From reading the pages of the Telegraph, one could conclude that Ashtabula residents were generally well-behaved.

In fact, in December 1876, the paper ran a rather lengthy item bemoaning the lack of interesting lawsuits and criminal activity at the courthouse.

The paper saw it as a downside...I guess you sell more papers when people are misbehaving. The article expressed concern that this dearth of courthouse action at "the Hub" in Jefferson was having negative effect on a local party establishment - and the economy.

In fact, this newspaper makes the strongest link I've ever encountered between the practice of law, the economy and - well - civic joy.

Here it is. Quote: "The languor of the court detracts from the usual stir and activity about the American House, and landlord Baldwin is left - comparatively - to waste his sweets upon the desert air.

Still quoting: "To see the Hub in its best estate, when lawyers and landlords and denizens of the burg are in their happiest and most attractive mood, it must be seen when the court is in full blast, when equity and justice are having their perfect work, when litigants come down freely, and printers, and county officers, and all of the rank and file of the laity, feel the influence of the little fructifying rills that the great enginery of justice and jurisprudence put into activity."

There's more. It gets better:

"The Hub then smiles all over ? it is redolent of happiness and radiant as a sunbeam.

"It becomes magnetic, and all who come up from the borders share in the joy, which, perhaps, they may not all understand, but which arises from the fact that justice, here at least, is not left to mope about the blindfolded and insensible, but is a real, earnest, vital element of life."

Wow! We don't get those kinds of observations anymore. There was a time when the courthouse was where it was at!

No people have to rely on TV, social media, and smart phones to fill the void once occupied by the activity at the courthouse.

Seriously, we can't talk about justice and the history of Ashtabula County without paying homage to a crusade that truly set your county apart.

The abolitionist movement was a defining feature of this area's formative years.

When we held Off-Site court in Morgan County two years ago the Justices and I stayed in an old inn on the Muskingum River that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Here in Ashtabula County, the Underground Railroad history is even richer. For many African Americans seeking freedom, your shores were the last stop on their terrifying route to liberty in Canada.

This is the home of famous abolitionists ? U.S. Congressman Joshua Reed Giddings, who's buried in Jefferson, and Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade.

Their opposition to slavery, and their fervor for equal rights for African Americans, was intense - and lifelong.

Wade went on to become president pro tem of the U.S. Senate. So, had President Andrew Johnson been convicted and removed from office after his impeachment by the House in 1868, Wade would have become president.

John Brown delivered a fiery anti-slavery address in Ashtabula.

I mentioned "famous abolitionists" because there were thousands of others in Ashtabula County through the years - from pastors to farmers and other ordinary folk ? who fought this fight without recognition.

Some county residents went so far as to design houses for the express purpose of hiding fugitive slaves. They built secret rooms under stairs, false walls and hiding places in attics, cellars and barns.

The William and Katharine Hubbard house here on the lake is the best example of a purpose-built safe house that survives.

The 13 years between enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Emancipation Proclamation was an especially perilous time.

Abolitionists called it "the bloodhound law" because it applied to all states, free and slave, and to all Americans, free and enslaved.

I commend Ashtabula County for preserving its history and keeping it alive.

We need to become even more diligent in saving - and savoring - our history.

Our home, the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center, houses a Civic Education Center that more than 10,000 students visit each year.

The Court subsidizes the bus rides of classes from around the state so students can tour our Courthouse and visit the center.

Off-Site Court is part of our educational outreach.

This fall, we will roll out an in-depth program for teachers to put to use in their classrooms. Local attorneys will be enlisted to help. So stay tuned for more on that as it develops

With that, I would like to turn over the lectern to each of my fellow justices, who have a few remarks.

Justice Kennedy .....

Justice French .....

Justice Fischer .....

Justice DeWine .....

Justice Donnelly .....

Justice Stewart .....

Thank you, Justice Stewart.

And thank you to all my colleagues.

Before we conclude, I would like to make an announcement.

This will be fun because it involves money.

Each year, Ohio's local courts are eligible to apply for grants under the Ohio Courts Technology Initiative.

This program is designed to provide money for technical upgrades.

I initiated this program in 2015 and in these five years the Supreme Court has made more than $14 million in grants.

Among the 47 courts being awarded this year is the Ashtabula County Court of Common Pleas, General and Domestic Relations Division.

Would Judge Thomas Harris please come forward?

Judge Harris, I would like to present this check for $37,959.64 to your court.

The grant is to provide funding for new computer servers and software upgrades to your Windows system, your OnBase purchasing system, and data conversion and related needs.


Thank you, judge. I know you will put this money to good use.

All courts today must do more with less ? and technology can be a big part of the answer.

Before we go, I have two presentations to make:

"Class photos" of our Court.

I would like to present this photo to Geneva High School, its staff and students, for doing such a great job of hosting us today.

Principal Doug Wetherholt, please come up ...

And here is a photo for Judge Yost, representing the bench and the bar, for the work of your staff, and your support and the support of the judges and magistrates.

This concludes our Off-Site Court program.

Before I turn it over to Judge Yost, I want to thank you once again for your hospitality.

Each of you are welcome to come to Columbus to visit our beautiful Court building downtown. It is a tour you will never forget.

May God Bless.

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