Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
2014 State of the Judiciary
August 28, 2014

Thank you Judge James for that introduction and for the invitation to speak at the Ohio Judicial Conference’s annual meeting.

To Ohio’s judges, thank you for your service in the fair and efficient administration of justice.

To my colleagues on the Supreme Court bench, thank you for being here.

Last year I spoke to you about judicial reform. This initiative is a still a major priority for me, but today I want to cover several other topics.

First, let’s dispense with the elephant in the room: judicial pay.

I don’t have to tell you that this is the longest dry spell ever for judges to NOT receive a pay raise.

It is extremely troubling, and that translates into some real losses within the judicial family across the state.

This issue goes beyond a basic cost-of-living increase – the minimum the state should provide. Choosing a career in public service should not mean being saddled with a stagnant salary for the entire time – or the majority of the time – that you spend on the bench. This amount of time without a pay raise is far too long.

The issue takes on added significance when you consider the coming turnover in the judiciary. We are a branch in transition.

Of the 720 judges currently holding office, nearly 100 are in their final terms and will not be able to run again.

In other words, at minimum, 14 percent of the current roster of judges will turn over within the next six years. And this number does not include the number of judges who retire early before they are aged out.

In fact, just since January we have had seven judges retire mid-term.

These statistics underscore the need to make the judiciary as attractive as possible to sitting judges – to keep them as sitting judges – and also potential candidates for the judiciary.

In discussions with the leadership of our Legislature, we have not asked for the moon. Let me assure you of that. I know judges’ salaries cannot equal or match what the big law firms pay. None of us would be sitting in the room as judges if that's what our expectation was and that’s what we wanted. Because that’s not what we want as judges. Our job satisfaction is oftentimes the biggest reward and the public service element of what we do. If we wanted to be in private practice with all of the trappings of private practice, we would have been there. But we chose a different career path, and one that I think we’re all satisfied with. But part of that satisfaction is a fair salary for the amount of time, effort, and good that we do put into our jobs.

What is being discussed with the Legislature is essentially what was in place in the last legislation to address this issue and that was well before 2008. Times have certainly progressed since 2008. Modest, annual cost-of-living increases that would keep pace with inflation is not too much to ask.

Also worthy of discussion is the idea of an elected officials commission. This commission – based on study and analysis – would recommend compensation for all elected officials not just members of the judiciary. And this is a concept that is being floated about and talked about as well. Other states have such commissions and they work very, very well.

Without an effort to make judicial salaries more competitive, sitting judges will look to jump to private practice or other opportunities and potential judges will not even give the bench the time of day or consideration.

I encourage you to help make the case to your legislators and to the public.

I must commend Mark Schweikert and the conference for their efforts in this area. Mark and I meet on a very regular basis to discuss not only compensation but other topics of interest to us all.

Closely related to the judicial pay issue in my mind is adequately funding Ohio’s courts.

Our Task Force on the Funding of Ohio’s Courts has been gathering information from the courts through questionnaires and has estimated that it costs about $1.1 billion to operate the state’s courts, although this is a preliminary figure.

At first glance, that may seem like a lot – $1.1 billion. But with a closer look and in comparison with other sections of government it truly is not.

Consider that Ohio’s court system, as a co-equal branch of government, is funded less than the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015 at $1.5 billion a year in GRF funding.

To use another law enforcement partner budget, the Department of Public Safety’s biennial budget for FY14 ($680.3M) and FY15 ($682.7M) equals about $1.4 billion in all funding.

The $1.1 billion number represents our current best guess at all state plus local funding of Ohio courts. What we do know without guessing is that just the state portion of funding for courts is $147.2 million (current GRF budget for Supreme Court/Judiciary, Court of Claims, and Ohio Judicial Conference). That represents less than one-half of one percent of the state budget.

I do not know how much is spent in total on our government in Ohio ... by that I mean the local, county and state operations other than the judicial branch. But I am quite certain that the $1.1 billion estimate to operate Ohio’s judicial branch as a percentage of total government expenditures (both state and local) would be an extremely small number.

Given the constitutional and statutory obligations required of Ohio courts and their programmatic initiatives, it’s not a stretch to say quite possibly that Ohio courts are underfunded. I think that is a very true and accurate statement. The task force, however, will be in a better position to weigh in on that question at the conclusion of its work.

In order for the task force to complete its work, accurate reporting is crucial to come up with a solid financial number to present our case. If you are one of the few courts that have not answered the survey questionnaire, please make it a priority. As you can see, accurate data helps not hurts. If we are to make a case for adequate funding we have to back up our position with data. This is just the beginning of a conversation.

It will also help build the case that the state court system is a bargain considering the services the judiciary provides to every citizen and every community in our state.

Part of making the case for judicial pay is helping the public understand what judges do, how well judges do it, and the many innovative programs in courthouses around the state.

Here are just a few worthwhile programs and initiatives at the local level to point to:

There are many, many more examples I could share, but please know that all your efforts are appreciated.

Whatever program you have in place locally, share it. Make it known. Make it known to your peers around the state and most importantly make it known in your communities. Get out there and talk about the great work that you do. There are so many forums ... use them all. Resist the monastic life and get out in your community.

Take advantage of every opportunity, whether it’s a local radio program or a newspaper column, monthly Rotary meetings, or people you meet and greet at the county fair.

Success stories go beyond the local level. Two recent statewide gatherings point to the value of judges from across Ohio learning and borrowing from each other.

The June 30th Judicial Symposium on Opiate Addiction included judges and their justice system partners from 83 counties.

Data released in April by the Ohio Department of Health showed that there were a total of 1,914 overdose deaths in Ohio in 2012.

Of those, 1,272 deaths – or two-thirds – were from opioids.

Contrast that with the statistics from 2001 in which there were 266 opioid overdose deaths. The real tragedy is that over the span of time from 2001 to 2012 deaths from opioid overdoses increased nearly five-fold. This is a trend we are desperately trying to stop.

The sad state of affairs that all of Ohio has been affected by heroin and other opiates is tempered by the fact that county-wide solutions are being implemented to combat this scourge.

Many communities across the state have held or have scheduled “town-hall” style meetings to receive input and share promising judicial practices and options for treatment, including medication-assisted treatment that were discussed at the symposium.

In addition to learning about the science of addiction, symposium attendees also heard from addiction experts and a panel of judges running successful specialty dockets on drug abuse.

Representatives from countywide teams will be invited back in November to share their experiences as part of the Supreme Court’s annual drug court conference. Other support activities for our local courts dealing with this problem are being planned by Supreme Court staff in cooperation with executive branch partner agencies. I look forward to hearing about your progress.

At the Domestic Relations Summit in April, judges and their justice system partners were focused on minimizing conflict for Ohio children and families.

Attendees completed an assessment of their local case management practices to streamline, combine, or reorganize steps in the process. Following the analysis stage, teams assessed their resources to ensure their optimal use. Finally, teams worked to identify challenges and solutions.

Teams also learned about promising Ohio and national practices to promote discussions on improving the case management for parties appearing before the court.

Presentations focused on caseflow management, protecting families from abuse, and dispute resolution. Teams also devoted time to facilitated planning at the summit.

The statewide success stories also extend to our colleagues in the bar.

A total of 3,351 attorneys reported pro bono legal services to at-need Ohioans for 2013 in the Supreme Court’s annual tally.

They provided more than 100,000 hours of pro bono assistance (100,964).

The value of their pro bono legal services – using a rate of  $135 per hour – equals $13.6 million.

Most of the pro bono legal services were provided in matters involving family law; wills and probate; employment law; and property law, including foreclosures and evictions.

These results clearly show that Ohio attorneys continue to step up to provide a legal voice to those who would otherwise not be heard, for problems that affect people deeply.

Another area where Ohio will step up is through a Supreme Court task force that will identify obstacles for low-income and disadvantaged Ohioans to access the civil justice system. The group held its first meeting on August 1.

The 11-member Task Force on Access to Justice will review how other states have addressed the issues, including permanent commissions that bring together stakeholders needed to advance and enhance access to justice.

I urged the task force to broaden the definition to not only include those who cannot afford an attorney, but also to those who encounter other barriers to the legal system, such as language barriers.

The task force includes judges, representatives of legal aid organizations, the state public defender, and attorneys in private practice. It is being led by former Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown. And Justice Judi French is the court’s member on the task force.

I’d like to mention another initiative that will help to raise the profile of judges.

And that is through the development of a voter education initiative that is being created with the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron. We have partnered with the OSBA and the League of Women Voters.

Through this effort, it is envisioned that a website would better educate voters about what judges do and why it is important to all citizens. It will provide a centralized repository so voters can gain easy access to more information about judges and judicial candidates.

We’ve been meeting regularly with our partners in this effort.

The next step is to develop a survey that will form baseline research about what voters know about judges, courts, and judicial elections, so that we know how to target our efforts and we can measure results later.

The ultimate goal is to elevate voter participation levels in judicial elections by educating voters as to why it is important to do so.

I’m going to close with an interesting ‘factoid’:

Out of 22 professions ranked by a Gallup survey last year, judges placed ninth as to the “honesty and ethical standards” of people in different fields.

45 percent of the survey respondents ranked judges very high or high for honesty and ethics. This finding is yet another positive for the judiciary, especially considering where other branches of government and professions rank:

The judicial branch should be proud of its successful programs and innovative initiatives. Keep up the good work on the front end, and we will do better in sharing those stories on the back end.

I want to talk a little bit about the internal operations at the Supreme Court. We’ve had some changes at the Supreme Court since May.

I think that you all are aware that we are without an administrative director. Steve Hollon moved on after almost 15 years with the court to be the executive director at the Constitutional Modernization Commission. So we will be launching our A.D. search this week. A screening committee will be in place to review applications and then make recommendations to the Justices so that we will do the final round of interviewing for that process. We anticipate that this will begin shortly and we will have someone in place by the end of the year. Currently, Mindi Wells, who was the assistant administrative director, is the interim director.

We have a search out right now for the director of the Criminal Sentencing Commission. Dave Diroll is retiring and moving on. We need to find a replacement. We have 45 or 46 applications received to date. There’s a screening committee formed from members of the Sentencing Commission. They will start the interview process. Stay tuned for those results.

The Reporter of Decisions is a job that is under search right now. Sandra Grosko, who has moved on to be the Clerk of Court, was promoted. Expect a decision on our Reporter position within the month.

It appears that there’s a little turnover going on at the Supreme Court. Well, yeah there is, and it’s positive. And I want to explain a little bit more about that.

We have people who are leaving for retirements. We have people who will be taking advantage of the ERIP, the early retirement incentive program, that we have at the court.

Since May, we have promoted or provided new opportunities to 11 members within the Supreme Court’s staff at all levels.

Promoted to professional positions: Sandra, as I mentioned, Christy Tull at the Judicial College as the interim Judicial College director, Bret Crow is the new PIO director, Tasha Ruth is Manager of the Case Management Section.

Our previous director of Public Information, Chris Davey, whom many of you are familiar with, has moved on to hold a position with Ohio State University.

We have other professional opportunities, people from maintenance and facilities to our IT program as well as our legal staff and our mid-level managers have all moved on new opportunities within the Court.

Just since May, we have offered promotions and opportunities to 11 members out of a staff of about 250, and that’s quite impressive. That, I think, is a reflection on the quality of the people that we have working for us. So I’m very excited about that fact.

Now you’re going to see postings to backfill those jobs that are vacated by the promotions and the transitioning, so stay tuned for that as well.

We’ve created some new positions, a new Master Commission position, Assistant Reporter, Family Law Case Management Counsel. As for those positions, one is filled and the other two are in the process as well.

We have a policy at the Supreme Court that our positions are open until filled. We start interviewing at a particular date and that date is announced. But we allow for applications to continue to be filed and reviewed. It is, I think, a more open process and one that is more inclusive for folks that may be interested.

Our IT positions – and many of you work with our IT department especially in the appellate division – our operations are now up to full contingency. We have only one remaining vacancy, and that’s for an entry-level help desk technician. And that position is being advertised and we will fill that shortly. So I’m very excited about our IT department. That is such a crucial division within our branch, not only for the Supreme Court but for the support that’s given to the local courts as well.

E-filing, stay tuned ... it’s a work in progress. We have a pilot project that is starting with some state government agencies, the AG’s Office, the State Public Defender, and a few other folks are going to be the guinea pigs for the e-filing. And then we’re going to have something that we’re getting ready to roll out in early 2015. That’s probably more important to the bar, but it’s something you should be aware of as well.

Something that you’re all interested in is the Supreme Court case management system. We are engaging in a feasibility study for a standardized case management system being conducted. It will be conducted by the Gartner Group. The legislature has been generous in funding the Court Technology Fund ($3.3 million this and last year). Statewide input will be considered as part of this study. Some of you have been challenged because of the recent abrupt exit of Amcad from the case management world and the resulting impact on our local courts. We understand the urgency and the need for dialogue and solutions to that problem. One the reasons we’re having this case management system overview and study done by the Gartner Group is that the information we have is about a half decade old if not more. We can’t look at spending $3.3 million a year or anything close to that if we don’t have up-to-date data and a study done about what our customers need. You being the customers. So the courts will be asked to participate in giving information and we’re going to look at how we move forward with what some call a hosted case management system. Believe me, we are dedicating time, talent, and dollars to come up with this solution.

Many of you, I think all the administrative judges will receive a Physical Security Assessment service letter within the next week or two. Those are services offered by our Office of Court Security to your local courts that will:

We have a host of individuals who have expertise in this area. Those services have been provided to many courts within the state. But there are still many courts where needs arise and we are there to remind you when the opportunity presents itself.

We have developed a “new judge on-boarding process.” It’s a process when new appointments are made and appointed mid-cycle by the Governor’s office. They come to the Supreme Court, and we really immerse them with a lot of information. I make every effort to meet the new judges when they’re there that first day to answer any questions they may have or just give them encouragement. But it has gotten an excellence review by the judges that we have onboarded.

We also reached a milestone this year for our occupancy of the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center. It’s still a special place. It’s still probably one of the most beautiful buildings in the state, if not the country for housing the judiciary. I hear that from my colleagues in the Conference of Chief Justices. I hear Chief Justices encouraging other Chief Justices saying “if you ever get the chance to go to Ohio then you have to see the Supreme Court facilities because they are absolutely phenomenal.” So if you have not been to the Supreme Court, please take the time to come to the Supreme Court. We can arrange for a tour. We can do that with a group, we can do that with you individually, we can do that with your families just so you can have that advantage too. It’s a special place to work, and we very much enjoy it. I’m very proud of it.

My last two items:

We are making progress in certifying specialized dockets.

Out of 159 specialized dockets in the state:

As I told you last year we were working on language to reinstate the acting judge reimbursement. It was pulled from the budget bill, but we found a vehicle for it in the recent Court of Claims legislation.

House Bill 261, which took effect July 10, re-establishes the Supreme Court’s authority to reimburse local courts for the cost of using an acting judge. The legislation also gives the Supreme Court greater oversight of the use of acting judges.

Supreme Court staff is currently working on processes to make the submission of an affidavit by the acting judge as simple as possible. Make no mistake, though, as of July 10 a funding authority can seek reimbursement from the Court for the use of an acting judge.

Thank you for allowing me the time to speak with you today. And thank you for all you do each day to further the cause of justice in the state.

God bless.