Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Continuous Progress, Treatment Courts Among Chief Justice’s Achievements

White woman with gray hair on a podium behind a lectern speaking to hundreds of people in a room.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has seen Ohio's court system grow in many ways during ther 12-year term.

White woman with gray hair on a podium behind a lectern speaking to hundreds of people in a room.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has seen Ohio's court system grow in many ways during ther 12-year term.

When taking leadership of the Supreme Court of Ohio in 2011, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor didn’t know what challenges Ohio’s judiciary would be facing, but she did have a plan on how to tackle them.

Speaking in her annual State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice O’Connor reflected on her 12 years as chief justice and the total 20 years she has served on the state’s highest court.

Chief Justice O’Connor spoke of moving forward after the death of former Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer – by working together with the judicial leaders at all levels.

“I promised you that we would face the challenges and seize opportunity as the vehicle for positive change to build a better judiciary,” she said.

Chief Justice O’Connor will retire at the end of the year. The Ohio Constitution says judges cannot run for election after turning 70. 

“Continuous improvement” is what the chief justice wanted from her time on the bench, and she pointed to several areas where that was achieved. She touted:

  • Advancements in technology.
  • Use of data to drive better decision making and help citizens understand how the justice system operates.
  • The growth of specialized dockets to address addiction and mental health issues.
  • Bail reform
  • Enhanced judicial education.
  • Civic education.
  • Promoted voter information campaigns regarding judicial elections and candidates.
  • Increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the justice system.

The chief justice credited Supreme Court staff along with the numerous representatives from the legal community who helped bring about positive changes in the justice system.

“One of the smartest things I did was continue convening a task force when there were big problems to tackle,” she said. “A task force is a phenomenal tool to solve problems. It brings everybody to the table. Often it is comprised of people who would not normally sit at the same table with one another. They look at the issues, data, best practices, and they hear from experts to innovate possible solutions.”

The chief justice also embraced other methods to bring collaborative thinking to major issues. In 2016, she convened the Regional Joint Opioid Initiative in 2016, bringing together eight neighboring states to share information and develop collective solutions to address the opioid crisis and focus on treatment through the justice system.  It has become a model nationally.

“Examining the problem from different angles, together, allows us to cover more ground,” she noted.
Sharing information across states has worked its way to the local level where judges use the information to help individuals overcome addiction and rebuild their lives.

Courts Adapt to Substance Abuse, Mental Health Disorders
Chief Justice O’Connor observed that the opioid epidemic has been one of the great public health crises the nation has faced. Even before the rise of opioid addiction, Ohio courts were adapting to handle drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues among those entering the criminal justice system.

Ohio is a pioneer in specialized dockets, the chief justice noted, and today there are more than 263 specialized dockets in the state, dedicated to specific types of offenses or offenders whose criminal behavior stems from a struggle with addiction and/or mental health issues.

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 criminal behavior.

“When I mention that number to chief justices in other states, they are impressed, and I'm kind of proud to quote that number,” she said. “It reflects well on Ohio’s judges – men and women who are willing to complicate their days by running specialty dockets. It isn’t easy. It can be an emotional rollercoaster for all involved, and it’s just plain hard work.”

She said she believes in treatment in lieu of prison for people who qualify, emphasizing it’s not the right approach for every case. The judges overseeing specialized dockets dedicate themselves to becoming more educated in science, medicine, and societal issues, and using those skills to give offenders a chance to rebuild their lives.

The need to adapt continuously to address addiction is evident by the constantly changing and dangerous forms of opioids plaguing Ohio communities, she noted.

“So, the fight goes on. Please, don’t be discouraged. There isn’t one solution, but maybe a combination,” she said.

Reform of Cash Bail System
While a bail measure proposed by state lawmakers will be on the ballot this fall, Chief Justice O’Connor “set the record straight” that judges already have the necessary options to ensure bail is appropriately granted and set at a level that is fair.

She explained community safety is the first thing a judge considers when a defendant stands before the court. A judge collects information from the prosecutor, pretrial services, law enforcement, the victim, and others. Then the judge determines if the accused is a flight risk, a threat to the community, a threat to witnesses, or a threat to victims or their families. If there are solid reasons based on the information presented, the court can then determine that that individual does not get a bond.  And that person is detained until the resolution of their case, she stated.

“The purpose of bail is to provide the accused a means of leaving detention while awaiting resolution of a case,” she said. “However, the concept of bail has been convoluted. It's looked at as a means to keep someone detained until the case disposed of. That's not the intent of bail.”

Court rules implemented during the chief justice’s tenure instructed local courts to use the least-restrictive bond conditions and the least amount of monetary bail to ensure a defendant appears in court when instructed to do so. Those changes were among improvements recommended by the 2019 Task Force to Examine the Ohio Bail System.

“A constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall would require judges to consider public safety when setting bail. If a judge is setting bail, he or she had better already have considered public safety because that was the first thing that they had to consider. The bond at that point is only to ensure that the defendant returns to court,” she said.

She said bail determinations should be made free from political pressure and judges should be able to make their own decisions based on what they believe is right.

“To manufacture fear and continue a pattern of jailing the people who can least afford to be released doesn’t protect society. It only assures that money determines the level of freedom and civil rights that one enjoys,” she said.

Public Confidence in Courts 
The chief justice touched on numerous initiatives to improve the judiciary and raise public confidence in the work of Ohio courts.

She noted the addition of a new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Supreme Court and the work to “ensure legal access is not denied or defined by the color of a person’s skin, their background, disability, gender, age, religion, or any distinguishing characteristics.”

She touted the establishment of a partnership with the legal community, universities, media organizations, and the League of Women Voters to launch the Judicial Votes Count website, which his now managed by the Ohio State Bar Association.

She noted that Ohio suffers a significant drop-off in the number of voters who cast a ballot in judicial races, with many of them stating the reason is not knowing enough about the judicial candidates to make a decision.

“So, if you are a judge who is on the ballot this year, please fill out Judicial Votes Count – even if you are unopposed. And I say that because people in your county, or your district for appellate judges, will go there and they'll look, and they'll learn about you. And that is extremely important,” she said. “Please encourage the people in your community to get educated and vote for judicial officers. Tell them about Tell them every chance you get because an informed electorate means good government.”

On a personal level, Chief Justice O’Connor said she is leaving the job with a grateful heart and appreciates Ohioans for every public office they entrusted her to take. She also shared her experiences working cooperatively with other judicial leaders through the National Center for State Courts and the Conference of Chief Justices, and the opportunity to serve in leadership of the national organization.

“Through these organizations, I have met, made wonderful friendships, and worked with people that I greatly admire. I’ve traveled to far away countries to teach about the rule of law, to judges, to prosecutors, and to government officials,” she said. “I swam with whale sharks in the Philippines and dove with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa. It has been an adventure and I have been blessed, to say the least.”