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Justice Speeches

Task Force to Examine Improvements to the Ohio Grand Jury System
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
February 17, 2016

Good evening and welcome.

In a few minutes, I will turn this meeting over to Judge McIntosh, chair of the task force.

But before that, I want to make a few brief comments and deliver your charge.

The concept of a grand jury has been part of the U.S. Constitution since 1791.

Even before then, however, at least two of the original 13 colonies - Massachusetts and New Hampshire - made their ratification of the Constitution contingent on the inclusion of a grand jury provision.

The point being, the grand jury system was a part of the fabric of our criminal justice system before the adoption of the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Likewise, in Ohio, the grand jury has been a constant in our state Constitution's Bill of Rights as far back as the original Constitution in 1802.

It's important to point out that every state constitutional revision since has preserved the protection of the grand jury.

Other states have chosen different systems for initiating criminal proceedings. But the grand jury is part of our constitution, a part that we must respect even while we seek ways to improve its operation and the operations of the entire criminal justice system.

Accordingly, I formed this task force to recommend ways to improve the functioning and fairness of grand juries and to see what additional steps can be taken to improve the public's confidence, understanding, and trust in our justice system.

I am not asking you to determine whether the grand jury system should be eliminated, especially given that it is embedded in our constitution and most notably in that portion of our state constitution that we call the Bill of Rights. That is not on the table. Everything else, however, is on the table because it has to be on the table.

Specifically, your charge includes, among other things:

Reviewing grand jury systems used in other states.

One item to consider is if other states' grand jury models provide for a more transparent system that engenders more public trust and confidence in the process.

You will also be tasked with reviewing Ohio Revised Code section 2939 and Criminal Rule 6 of the Ohio Rules of Criminal Procedure, both of which concern grand juries.

One item to consider is whether procedural matters such as how a grand jury votes, when it votes, and who determines when a vote is held should be laid out specifically in Ohio law or rules.

Another item to consider is whether all grand juries should receive a mandatory set of instructions from which they cannot deviate.

And, finally, you have been asked to address public understanding and public perception of our grand jury system. This is crucial.

Without knowledge of our institutions the public cannot respect and have allegiance to our institutions. Without allegiance to our institutions, the work of those institutions will be discredited.

The public needs to know what the grand jury does.

They need to know the role played by the grand jury.

They need to understand where the grand jury fits in the continuum of our criminal justice system.

We need to figure out ways to better communicate what the grand jury does to the average citizen to restore public confidence and improve public perception of grand juries.

But our education efforts cannot begin and end with the general public. We must also educate grand jurors themselves about their role, the instructions they receive, and the process as a whole.

Part and parcel of your work to examine the grand jury process will no doubt include asking tough questions that involve the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and what evidence can and should be presented for consideration and by whom.

It is absolutely critical that you keep an open mind about all aspects of the grand jury. I ask you to consider all the issues and invest your best efforts at examining and improving the system.

We cannot make improvements if we are unable to see the need, consider the opportunities, or remain attached to the notion "but we've always done it this way."

Improvement and innovation always include an element of risk. I am asking each of you individually and together to take a risk that we can make things better. Every institution created by humans can always be improved.

If we intend to build the public's allegiance to our justice system, then we, as individuals who represent various leaders of that system, have an obligation to take the necessary steps and examine all the issues.

This is not our system. It is not "owned" by any one interest or even all the interests represented at this table. This system belongs to the people of this great state and it is our obligation to address their concerns to deliver trustworthy justice. That is the only way people will have allegiance to our justice system.

Thank you for agreeing to serve in this necessary capacity and to undertake this important work.

You were chosen for your diversity of experience, expertise, and thoughtfulness and thoroughness.

Thank you especially to Judge McIntosh as chair and Wayne County Prosecutor Dan Lutz, who agreed to serve as vice chair.

It is my belief that examination of this issue by a broad-based membership of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors, legislators, law enforcement and community leaders is going to result in a fair, impartial, and balanced analysis, and practical and specific recommendations where needed.

I realize that your work is cut out for you and that you don't have a lot of time in which to accomplish it. It's crucial, for a variety of reasons, to undertake this task with speed.

As for a timeframe, I would like to see the task force work diligently in order to deliver an initial report and recommendations by June 15, which can be shared with the public for comment. I would expect a final report to be delivered later in the summer.

Please know that Supreme Court staff stand ready as a resource to assist with tracking down information, coordinating meetings, and serving as a sounding board for ideas.

Thank you again for your time and attention tonight, for your willingness to serve, and most importantly for agreeing to further the cause of justice in the state of Ohio. Judge McIntosh, the floor is yours.

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