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Justice Speeches

Ohio Veterans Treatment Court Graduation
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
August 4, 2022

Thank you, Judge [Marisa] Cornachio for the kind introduction. And thank you for all you have done to support the veterans here in Willoughby.

I came this afternoon to congratulate the first graduates of the veterans’ court program and all of you who make second chances possible.

The work you graduates have done is the start of all things good in your life.

I hope you feel the support and acceptance of a community of people, many of whom are here this afternoon. They have faith in you, and they have committed to support you.

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.

There are more than 210 specialized dockets in Ohio courts.

Specialized dockets 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.

These courts work with people who struggle with substance abuse dependency, either drug or alcohol or both and /or mental health issues.

These are the root cause for participation in drug court, mental health court, domestic violence court, veterans court. etc.

We, in Ohio, are pioneers in specialized dockets. Our work has been progressing for more than two decades. Specialized dockets are now a proven success story.

Willoughby Municipal Court’s veterans docket is the newest, and the first of its kind in Lake County. But your program is building on a concept of proven success.

Veterans court is a good example of courts sharing best practices. The first veterans court started in 2008 in Buffalo NY. The idea went nationwide.

And Ohio came on board early.

Maybe that’s because Ohioans have historically answered the call to military service and we currently have about 850,000 veterans in Ohio, the sixth largest population of veterans in the country.

There are now 29 veterans’ dockets certified in Ohio. And as I said, Willoughby is the newest.

Judge Cornachio stood this program up in 2020 and worked tirelessly for its certification. This is no small task. Not everyone, including some judges and prosecutors accept drug courts and specialized dockets in general.

I can tell you that there’s nothing dearer to people than their safety. People want to be safe in their home and their community. And when someone breaks the law, it seems to be a threat to that safety. It is difficult for most people to get beyond the fear.

In some places, the irony is lost in the fear. That the very people who signed up to protect us – to put their lives on the line for our safety and security as Americans - have now broken the law.

On top of that, it is not comfortable to talk about substance abuse, alcohol dependency, and mental health problems that contribute to criminal behavior.

As a judge, it is not comfortable to have a veteran stand before you.

When people wind up in the courtroom, it is then that they are at their lowest moment, that they are most in need of respect, humanity, and compassion.

Judge Cornachio has that compassion. She has not been afraid to look for a better solution to problems.

 But the judge would be the first to tell you that she did not do it alone.

It takes an entire court staff committed to these specialized dockets.

It takes community services coming together and partnering with the court. In this case, you put together a support team that is available as soon as a veteran enters the program –and it takes a lot of coordination.

Some other veterans I want to recognize are the people who stepped up to be volunteer veteran mentors.

It is true what they say, that a veterans call to the service of others remains with them long after their time in the military.

The mentoring component of the program is crucial to success.

Mentors are other veterans who come from the community and are partnered with the participants. They act as a friend or “battle buddy.”

After Training in the program, they can talk, veteran to veteran, about issues that arise suicide awareness, substance abuse, and more.

Veteran to veteran – they have that shared experience in military service.

Often a court initiates a special docket and recruits mentors.

But I understand you had mentors before you even had a program.

And the Willoughby mentors do more than the already weighty task. This mentor program helps other mentor programs across the state.

Yes, there are lots of heroes here this afternoon. And I don’t use that word lightly.

 Specialty Courts work because we use what we learn from the medical, science, and treatment community to solve problems in different ways. Evidenced based practices are the tools and data the proof that we can heal…maybe not everyone every time…but we heal where we can.

Veterans have unique experiences in the details of their service. There is a culture that binds. But the experiences of service often provide the challenges when their service is done.

Strength has its limits.

In Willoughby, some very caring people – got behind the people who stood up for us. Our military provides an invaluable service to our country. It’s a unique person who commits to serve in the military. And we can improve the way we honor that service by supporting veterans who want a healthier re-entry to life in Ohio communities.

Studies have shown this approach works by reducing recidivism while saving tax dollars.

I know you are on a journey that continues even after today’s milestone. But I have one more thing to ask. Be ambassadors for these unique courts.

Let people in the community know about its success.

Who knows better than you how recovery works? How the intricacies of daily life for a veteran, a parent, a child can work for or against a plan of recovery?

So, when its time…and I know that is a way off, but when its right, do what veterans do best…lend a hand to a vet! Mentor.

Once again, thanks to all of you: Judge Cornachio, court staff, veteran mentors, and graduates. Thank you for your service to Ohio and your service to each other.

May God Bless you.

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