Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Chief Justice Envisions Innovation by Courts to Meet State’s Challenges

A white woman with gray hair on a stage behind a lectern and microphone speaks to hundreds of people in a room.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor urges judges to carry on with efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, collect data for fairer sentencing, and invest in educating communities about how the courts serve the people they represent.

A white woman with gray hair on a stage behind a lectern and microphone speaks to hundreds of people in a room.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor urges judges to carry on with efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, collect data for fairer sentencing, and invest in educating communities about how the courts serve the people they represent.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s retirement from the Supreme Court of Ohio is approaching, but she hopes her vision of “continuous improvement” of the justice system lives on. 

From the devastation the opioid epidemic has inflicted on families and communities to ensuring all individuals have fair and equitable access to the courts, Ohio judges can develop innovative solutions to address the legal system’s challenges, the chief justice said.

Speaking to more than 400 judges gathered in Columbus, Chief Justice O’Connor urged the legal community to work together and partner with the Supreme Court to analyze problems facing the justice system and develop creative responses. She touted a number of efforts in her 12 years as chief justice that have resulted in making courts more effective and efficient.

Three areas that need continued attention are: the impact of substance abuse and mental health, using data to drive decision-making, and civic engagement and education to instill confidence in the justice system.

Evolving Problem of Substance Abuse
“Don’t let down your collective guard on opioids and synthetic drugs,” she told the judges. “It’s a game of whack-a-mole. But we have to keep fighting, for the health of our communities and for the future of our children and our families. Advance the initiatives. Continue to use and grow specialty dockets, but don’t be afraid to innovate and change it up a bit if the science and data tell you there are better ways.”

The surging problem of opioid addiction has flooded courts with cases involving those with drug addictions and families facing the consequences of an addict’s behavior. Ohio has been working with neighboring states since the chief justice convened the Regional Joint Opioid Initiative in 2016 to develop ways to collectively address the legal problems caused by opioids.

Ohio also has been a pioneer in the development of specialized dockets. There are currently 14 recognized types of specialized dockets operating in Ohio including veterans’ treatment courts, drug courts, mental health courts, human trafficking courts, family dependency treatment courts, re-entry courts, OVI courts, and domestic violence courts. Many of these courts address specific types of offenses or offenders whose underlying criminal behavior is caused by a struggle with drugs or alcohol and/or mental health issues. The state now has 263 specialized dockets with judges dedicating themselves to taking a scientific approach to addressing offenders, linking offenders with support services while providing strict monitoring to ensure participants comply with court orders.

But more can be done to face the challenges and develop ways to provide treatment and a means to overcome addiction, she noted.

Data Should Drive Solutions
The use of data to produce better outcomes will not only help with addiction, but also lead to improvements by courts in several aspects, Chief Justice O’Connor noted.

“There is no business that succeeds in the state of Ohio or in this country that does not rely on data. And the courts should be no different,” she said.

She encouraged the judges to grow data collection and use it in decision-making. Data can be a neutral and helpful advisor, she noted.

One of the principal areas of focus for the use of data has been in the improvement of criminal sentencing. The Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission will continue developing a statewide database and is working to standardize the way the state collects sentencing data. The chief justice said that ensuring clear and understandable sentences is of the utmost importance to promoting confidence in the judicial system.

There are now 97 judges in 42 courts and 48 counties title="Link Opens New Window" target="_blank"who have volunteered to participate in various ways to establish the database. The development and use of a uniform template will help with the efficient collection of criminal sentencing data and reduce the burden of data collection on local courts, the chief justice noted.

“My time is limited. I am not going to see that vision come to fruition in my term,” she said as she urged other judges to join the effort and improve the system.

Instilling Public Confidence in Courts
Often overlooked is the work judges do each day to bring about fair and just results in their courts, the chief justice said. While they are elected officials, judges do not often garner the same amount of the public’s attention as others. The chief justice urged judges to “humanize the judiciary” by taking the time to make themselves known in the community.

She noted the work of Fayette County Common Pleas Court Judge Steven Beathard, who has set out to share with the community his efforts to preserve and update the 169-year-old Fayette County Courthouse.

“Each year the school children come to the courthouse in Washington Court House to hear about the real-life judiciary – and some drama on their tour. They can see the bullet holes in the doors from the Ohio militia. There’s actually bullet holes in the wooden doors. They were protecting a Black man inside from an angry mob that had gathered outside, and the militia shot through the door in order to dispel, disperse the crowd,” she recalled. “That courthouse and what happened … becomes very real to those students that tour that courthouse. They will feel connected to it because they know its story. And more importantly, they met the judge.”

She also urged the judges to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s civic education resources, including the use of the “Under Advisement” series. Under Advisement is a set of professionally created lesson plans, using real cases heard at the Supreme Court, for school teachers to educate students about the legal system. The program encourages attorneys and judges to partner with teachers to help them learn about the case and the significance of the decision to Ohioans.

“It is fun, rewarding, and allows you to connect with your community. And those kids can tell everyone they met a judge: you!” the chief justice said.

She also encouraged judges to participate in the Judicial Votes Count program, in which judges provide their own information about their backgrounds and experiences to a website designed specifically to inform voters about judicial candidates. Chief Justice O’Connor noted that voters have clearly stated their preference for electing their judges, but many do not vote in judicial races because they do not know enough about the candidates.

The website was established through a partnership with the legal community, universities, media organizations, and the League of Women Voters, and is managed by the Ohio State Bar Association.

“Ohioans want to vote for judicial officers. But they don’t. And why don't they? Because they don’t know enough about the candidates for judge. Make it your mission to change that,” she said.

Ensuring Ohioans Fair Representation
When she leaves office in December, the chief justice joked that she is going to embrace the Italian concept of “il dolce far niente,” which translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.” But only for a few months, she added.