Ohio Association of MagistratesRetired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
September 7, 2022
It is good to be back with all of you, in person. While COVID is here to stay, it is good to get some normalcy back in our lives. Magistrates have shown exceptional abilities to adapt. You went beyond the day-to-day work and innovated ways to keep your dockets moving.
As I thought ahead to speaking with you today, I reflected on my time as a Magistrate.
So, I want to take you back a little so that we can look ahead to where we are and where I would like to see you lead the judiciary.
Yes, magistrates lead the judiciary in so many ways. Judges rely on you. Courts rely on you. You are today – and tomorrow’s – leaders on the bench. I have very clear hopes for you to lead and transform the state.
“Transformation” may sound like a lofty goal but embrace it. Many of the ideas for innovation, change, and improvement that I have undertaken in the last two decades are a result of what I experienced as a magistrate and common pleas judge.
When I last walked in your shoes it was the late 80s and early 90s. Much has changed. But much is the same. First and foremost, I learned early on that society’s problems show up in the courtroom. In your courtroom.
It can be a challenge, for so many reasons, to separate the case in front of you with the underlying issue that brought an individual to that point. But keep in mind that for the most part, people come to court and most of the time they really don’t want to be there. They are before the magistrate or judge because they have a problem that they cannot solve themselves. If they could, they wouldn’t be in court…and I guess we wouldn’t have jobs. When society is in crisis, we see it in our courts.
Arguably the greatest public health crisis of our time is the opioid epidemic. Like the pandemic -- it will be with us -- possibly always. But COVID has been abated by vaccines. Researchers were already working on the problem before we faced it. Medical professionals moved in quickly to identify and standardize treatments. Science is learning about the disease – and how it morphs. The scientific, research, medical, business, and political professionals moved quickly to identify, analyze, learn, act, and adapt.
Opioids – substance dependency disorder overall – has not been approached with the same vigor. Too often we see an emotional reaction of denial and blame. Would our communities be in a different place if science and medicine took the COVID approach to addiction?
Magistrates have been on the front line. You see a good bit in family court, in traffic court, during arraignment, or if you preside over a specialized docket.
While it is our judicial role to mete out justice in an individual case, I believe we have a responsibility to go beyond what is required in the moment. Yes, we must deal with the immediate situation. Then we have a responsibility to step back, identify what is happening that impacts the system, analyze available data, and find solutions. In this way, we constantly improve our system of justice.
And that’s been happening in Ohio. And today I want you to recognize it, so Ohio can continue to advance.
In the late 90s, treatment courts began. We, in Ohio, are pioneers in specialized dockets. And when I became Chief Justice, I saw the opportunity to do more and to do it better.
In 2013, Ohio began certifying specialized dockets. I saw evidence the program was working and wanted to increase the operation, value, and outcomes of specialized dockets. Today, there are more than 263 specialized dockets in Ohio courts.
These dockets – as most of you know by now -- are dedicated to specific types of offenses or offenders and use a combination of holding offenders accountable while also addressing the underlying causes of the criminal behavior. The root cause for participation is a struggle with either drugs or alcohol or both, and /or mental health issues.
I believe in treatment in lieu of prison for people who qualify. It’s not right for every case, of course. But for people suffering substance abuse disorder, veterans with PTSD, and others with mental health issues -- jail is warehousing.
Treatment is a chance to rebuild their lives.
The Commission on Specialized Dockets, the Court Services Specialized Docket Section – and some of you – applied a scientific approach.
As these dockets continue to grow, magistrates and judges who oversee them are more educated than ever before on the science, medicine, and societal data. This is a big commitment for those who embrace it. Your work is exemplary. And after more than two decades. Specialized dockets are now a proven success story.
Yet for all your hard work, for all we have committed, opioid abuse continues to plague your communities. In the peak of COVID, the numbers show a backsliding. And In 2021, it surged to 2017 numbers. So, the fight goes on. Don’t be discouraged. We are winning one person at a time -- making a better system of justice in the process.
Faster improvement was on my mind in 2016 when I convened a collaborative effort called RJOI. The Regional Joint Opioid Initiative brought together 8 – mostly neighbor -- states to share information on dealing with the epidemic. This is a community problem that knows no borders. It was filling criminal and family courts. It was killing at an alarming rate. Examining the problem from different angles, together, allowed us to cover more ground. The law continues to evolve more quickly on this issue than if we had all worked separately.
This is the best definition of community – people coming together selflessly, to support one member of the community and by doing so, strengthening the entire community. So, do not stop. Keep finding ways to save lives.
Let’s talk about data. The conversation is not new. The recommendation to examine how well the entire system works has been made, here in Ohio, since 1999.
Data allows analysis of a system that heretofore has had limited analysis. Data can guide us in so many areas of the judiciary.
Magistrate Maureen Duffy of the Franklin County Probate Court is providing leadership for a workgroup of the Subcommittee on Adult Guardianship -- to the Advisory Committee on Children and Families. The group is working to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. We are asking courts how they track guardians with ten or more wards, for example. How frequently do courts track expenditures? How many guardians were removed? And how many complaints against guardians has a court received? The information will be used to develop ways to support probate courts in monitoring guardianships of an estate per R.C.2109.302.
Whatever your area of interest, think of the data that would be most useful to inform your work. Be data driven.
Why is this important? Because it’s not just about a system. It’s about peoples’ lives. Defendants, victims, judges and court personnel, prosecutors and defense attorneys, law enforcement, treatment professionals, corrections, probation. The list goes on. And let’s not forget about the taxpayer.
The establishment and widespread use of databases will advance the fair and equitable administration of justice.
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. You need only to look at my record to know -- I support an independent judiciary and the discretion of judges.
But an experienced judge who also has data: information about trends. What works and what does not. How do rulings fall compared to norms. Analysis can be effective and part of a more trusted system.
The justice system is complex, multi-faceted and often complicated. Without data there is truly no way to know how well all segments of the system are doing.
Is what we are doing hitting the mark? Are we making a positive difference? Are our decisions leading to the intended consequences? And is the system demonstrating the responsible and intelligent use of our resources?
I envision data collected from the time of the arrest -- to the charges the prosecutor makes -- to the pre-trial proceedings -- to the disposition – sentencing -- post sentence -- community control -- and beyond. Data at every stage is necessary to truly understand and inform our work.
Underway now -- the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission is standardizing the way we collect felony sentencing data. The pilot program underway already has 97 judges in 42 courts and 48 counties who have volunteered to participate in various ways. More are signing on every month. And we must keep moving forward.
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.
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.
We do have encouraging and exciting data related to technology. It has been a bright spot in the lessons we learned through the pandemic.
But my commitment to technology – and yours -- didn’t start with the pandemic.
The pandemic just took us from being technology-driven to technology-dependent.
Nearly a decade ago, the Supreme Court went to e-filing.. E-filing increases access to courts. It reduces costs for litigants and taxpayers. And it makes the work of clerks and court administrators easier. Many of them are already stretched so thin.
And I know local courts don’t always have the money to make the initial investment in technology.
That’s where the Technology grants program at the Supreme Court comes in.
In 2015, I took money from my budget to give technology grants to lower courts around Ohio. Every year since then I have given those grants – now totaling more than $35 million.
One of our grant recipients this year is the Erie County courts. Magistrate Tom Dusza will lead the implementation of a modern electronic system for access to the docket, filing, paying fees and more. And not just for probate court. Common pleas, domestic relations, and probate courts will be integrated into one system.
Erie is not new to technology. But the current system is 30 years old – originally implemented in 1991. So, you must come in person, call, or fax during business hours. When the new system is completed – the general public, attorneys, and staff will have remote access, 24/7. And the clerk’s time can be used elsewhere.
Magistrate Duza’s big project will increase access, improve efficiency, and save litigants time and money. It’s a big win. I am happy the Supreme Court could make it possible by providing $150,000. The court did not have the money to afford the initial outlay.
Tuscarawas County got a grant which will make e-filing possible for the first time.
Warren County is using a grant to begin text and email notification of court appointments. These are just a few examples of how technology is transforming our courts.
Text reminder technology is an important trend. It is used in four main ways:
For hearing reminders.
Procedural coaching for the self-represented.
Screening or Intake for special programs.
Referral to services.
I probably don’t have to tell you that people who are involved with the court system don’t necessarily show up for their appearances, or conferences, or hearings or even trials. In many types of cases, from traffic tickets, to eviction, and debt collection lawsuits, there are high ‘Failure to Appear’ rates.
One solution is to text reminders to the individual. It’s really a pretty simple application that mimics the notifications that every business from your dentist to your salon to even school events
The University of Chicago studied the text messaging program of the New York City Criminal Courts and found that receiving any pre-court message reduces failure-to-appear on the court date by 21%.
The most effective messaging are Combination messages… texts that include both a reminder to make a plan of how to get to court and the consequences of failing to appear.
This is just one of the studies going on. Monitoring our own pilot programs and other courts’ results is very instructive. Not just about the use of text messages, but what the message should say, how frequently they should be sent, what time of day, and more.
What we are learning overall: reaching people through their personal technology – their cell phone -- leads to timely compliance.
Nobody knew in 2015 that there would be a global pandemic. But because of the early vision and commitment by so many of you, Ohio was technologically better prepared than most states.
As we emerged from two years of covid I formed the 25-member iCOURT task force to gather information on how the courts innovated during covid, what practices worked, what technologies were best, and what changes were made that proved to be for the better. The task force was charged with compiling a report that included recommendations regarding the use of technology and best practices going forward.
Serpil Ergun is Administrator for Judicial Operations and Chief Magistrate of the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court in Cleveland. She generously gave of her time to serve as vice-chair of the iCOURT Task Force.
The task force surveyed thousands of magistrates, judges, court officials, attorneys, litigants, and justice partners. It learned about needs and opportunities as well as technical hurdles, practical and legal concerns. It began to reimagine how courts could better administer justice going forward.
The task force came up with 97 detailed recommendations for courts to join the digital 21st century. I will be forever appreciative to:
- Paul Ratterman, Chief Magistrate of the Hamilton County Probate Court
- Magistrate Nancy Novack, of Franklin County
- Magistrate Penny Gates, Clermont County Domestic Relations Court
- Magistrate Elizabeth Tekavec, from Ashtabula County
- And Retired Magistrate Patricia Hider from Butler County.
These colleagues on the task force worked efficiently and effectively to advance our capability. Their work will continue to have an impact for years into the future.
The first of the rule changes based on iCOURT recommendations went into effect July first. Next week a 45-day public comment period will open on the next round of rules changes which include:
Requiring criminal and juvenile courts to provide an e-filing option. This mirrors the requirement for civil cases.
I encourage you to go to our website and review the proposals and make comment if you have any. The rules package also includes some non-technology components such as:
Establishing statewide minimum standards for process servers.
Allowing courts to reduce or expand the number of interrogatories.
Exempting certain domestic relations and civil protection order cases from the double-dismissal rule.
One clarifies the use of juries in juvenile court.
As I say, it is a robust package. Take a look.
Before I move on from technology, I want to recognize the range of Magistrate Ergun’s leadership in tech innovation.
Cuyahoga Domestic Relations is developing a virtual help center with Ohio Legal Help to create a guided interview process. Magistrate Ergun is assisting with an initiative to update the National Center for State Court’s survey to measure perceptions of access and fairness in courts using remote technologies.
Magistrate Michelle Edgar led the effort in Fairfield County to pilot an electronic survey for access and fairness in the courts. Magistrate Angela Hardway from Akron Municipal Court has led the pilot in evictions. Cuyahoga Domestic Relations Court is piloting online dispute resolution.
And I know there are many more of you. What is notable about the dispute resolution pilot is that in addition to testing and developing best practices in their own courts, many of the courts in the pilot have collaborated with each other And through the Court Services Division -- they share best practices as they develop.
Results of the Online Dispute Resolution pilot project are being compiled. Preliminary information shows remote hearings have fared well -- in the efficient and effective administration of justice.
Change, modernization, and increased access have been achieved by magistrates with the support of their judges and court staff.
These commitments by so many of you has ensured justice is not delayed or denied -- particularly to the most vulnerable in our state. And let’s face it, a lot of people became economically vulnerable during the pandemic.
You know poverty is a factor – not unrelated – to what brings some people into your court.
In 2020, the poverty rate increased for the first time, after 5 consecutive years of decline, according to the U.S. Census. While Blacks make up the highest percentage of people living in poverty, there was essentially no change in poverty rate for this population from 2019 to 2020.
But poverty rates increased for Hispanics, non-Hispanic Whites, children and young people, married couples, and unmarried women heading a household.
Incomes have declined.
This is not good news for Ohio. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts median family income in 2021 at $58,116 per year. That is lower than all our neighbor states, (MI, PA, KY, NY) except West Virginia. What’s more, most households (44%) fall in the $25,000 - $50,000 earning range. People are working to get by.
Judicial Discretion comes in many forms. It is a powerful tool which should not be used for power. Its best use is in a show of strength, reasonableness, and fairness.
Fairness starts with each of us. Are we understanding the people before us? Do we have enough information about the accused and the circumstances? Are we considering our own bias?
Fairness is a central issue when we examine bail. The purpose of bail is to provide the accused a means of leaving detention while awaiting resolution of a case.
For those of you who preside over arraignments, when a defendant comes before you there is usually the matter of bond to be considered.
Yet, in our state and others, most jail detainees have not been convicted of anything. The bail task force in 2019 found 60% of prisoners in Ohio jails were awaiting adjudication. They were not convicted of anything. They were not sentenced to jail.
These are people waiting for their case to be resolved and who cannot afford bail. In many cases, by what may be a nominal amount to you or me. The inability to pay a bail of $250 is a reality for many Ohioans.
We know that even 3 days in jail may mean the loss of a job.
And then the parade of “horribles” begins. After being fired, they lose their place to stay. There may be repercussions with Childrens Services. It is a spiral that only goes downward.
There has been a lot of discussion about the DuBose case. And I would like to set the record straight. DuBose did not take options from judges. It says we must consider each case on the facts.
Ohio deserves judicial leadership that follows the law and considers the constitution. It deserves judicial leadership that is free from political pressure and works to get things right.
A constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall would require judges to consider public safety when setting bail. That is what you do every day now. And nothing in the DuBose opinion tells you not to.
Let me say what diligent magistrates, judges, prosecutors, and practitioners of this state already know -- If you evaluate the facts and find there is a threat, you have the option for detention. You always have.
.The tools to guide your determinations are in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Section 9 of the Ohio Constitution, Rules of Criminal Procedure 46 and 46(B), and in the revised Code at 2937.22.
Ultimately, citizens have confidence in the judiciary because it is reliable. We reject the arbitrary use of power and are guided by the Constitution, precedent decisions, and laws. We hold all citizens and institutions accountable to the same rules.
Magistrates have a tough job. At times, the toughest of the bench. You must be administrators and adjudicators. You must stay current on all the laws and rules and best practices.
It has been important to me to increase the quality of the judiciary. Not just requiring legal education for all levels of judicial officers – but developing top quality judicial education programs and encouraging judges to adopt best practices that meet national quality standards.
In 2021, the Judicial College delivered a record 334 courses. That’s more courses to more participants than any year in its 46-year history. And there were more options than ever before -- in person, online, and by live webinar.
Recently, the Court moved Magistrates’ CLE from the government of the bar to the government of the judiciary. This change makes sense and further recognizes the important role that magistrates play as judicial officers.
Last week, we announced changes in CLE rules from previous self-study limits for magistrates effective Jan. 1, 2024. They are identical to the judges’ requirement whereby the self-study caps increased from 12 to 20 hours. This will preserve the professionalism level of the court while recognizing the need for a variety of ways you can obtain education. The Judicial College will continue to offer hundreds of hours each year through in-person and self-study education through webinars and online courses.
The Supreme Court should not be an ivory tower that just hears cases and lets the rest of the justice system fend for itself. Through education and training, technology guidance and funding, and other supports, I have encouraged the Supreme Court to make your job easier. And I encourage you to work together to make each other’s jobs easier by communicating and sharing information, just as you are doing at this meeting.
Magistrate Teresa Liston is a former Franklin County judge. Now in Cambridge Municipal Court, she has coordinated a Marsy’s Law Task Force of justice partners in Guernsey County. They are coordinating information to reduce duplication of effort and ensure compliance with requirements.
Look to examples like this – where smart people are already looking at an issue – to find best practices and lessons learned. Improvements in the justice system work best – fastest – when working together.
Lean on Supreme Court and Judicial College resources to continually strengthen your knowledge of the job and the courts. Use the toolkits, guides, and bench cards and don’t hesitate to share feedback or new ideas. After all, you are on the job every day. What you experience, is probably happening in other courts. You should not have to fend for yourself.
You are not the only ones who need to be continually learning. So, get involved in civic education.
It is essential for good government. An uninformed electorate defies good government. I have worked hard with many partners to promote civic education. We have won awards for it. Across the country, they learn from us. We take oral arguments into communities. We brought cameras into the courtroom. And have streamed arguments to homes and offices of 7 million Ohioans, through their televisions and computers.
I started a cooperative partnership among the Supreme Court, the bar, academia, media organizations, and more. The mission was to develop a place where voters can access good, unbiased information about those running for judicial office. Judicial Votes Count was born. This year, judicial votes count – dot-org has moved to the Ohio State Bar Association. It is a website with information – no endorsements – information about each judicial candidate.
The website will be used by media across the state. We know that a high percentage of voters do not vote in the judicial races. Yet, when we surveyed them, more than 70% of Ohioans said they did not want to relinquish voting for judges.
I encourage you to encourage the people in your community to get educated and vote for judicial officers. Tell them about Judicial votes count – dot -org. Tell them in every speech. Do it like I just did. Say it at least 4 times, so it sticks.
An informed electorate means good government.
And if you are a candidate for a judicial office, please go to judicial votes count – dot – org between now and September 30th and enter your information.
Thank you, OAM President, Magistrate (James) Lyle, for welcoming me today. I wish you a strong additional year as President.
For the Conference Chairs, I know how much work it is to pull off an event like this. Let’s give a round of applause to Magistrates Michelle Edgar, Joe Nemec, and Deb Drexler.
And special thanks to Magistrate Penny Gates -- who has put in a great deal of work as Education chair – for what looks like a wonderful three days of learning.
And also, a thank you to Christy Tull and the staff at the Ohio Judicial College. Every judicial organization relies on the Judicial College to assist with the curriculum and training offered.
As you probably all know, I will be leaving office at the end of this year. The Constitution is telling me the time is fast approaching for me to do something different. Time to become Maureen O’Connor, private citizen. When I first came to the court 20 years ago I did not see myself as chief justice. But as fate would have it…it worked out that I did become chief justice. It has been a privilege to be chief…I have been so very fortunate to lead a judiciary that values education and training, access to justice, fair and impartial administration of justice, and the list goes on. I have been privileged to work with wonderful competent dedicated staff.
One thing that we all have in common, from chief justice to the newest magistrate is that we are all public servants. We are trusted to do our jobs for the benefit of those that come before us but also for the good of all Ohioans…and the good of the institution that is our court system. Government doesn’t run itself and it is only as good as the public servants who maintain its daily operation. After all government is there to serve the people. We are the public servants who make sure that the institution of the court fulfills its mission…the delivery of justice.
And so, I charge you with carrying on the work that has been started during the past 12 years I have served as chief justice.
People have been asking me about “My Legacy.” I suppose it is a natural question.
I honestly can’t think of much I have done alone. My greatest contribution has been bringing together a wide range of very smart people to solve problems.
By involving more people, we have been able to make more progress:
- In implementing technology to increase access to courts.
- In reforming bail, fines, and ending ‘de facto’ debtors’ prisons.
- In providing opportunities for second chances through specialized dockets.
- Increasing professionalism.
- In calling attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion to a fairer more just system.
- and so much more.
We have worked together to improve the judiciary and to make a better Ohio. And now you must take the torch.
I am happy to take any questions.