Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Common Pleas Mental Health Docket Luncheon
Jan. 18, 2018

Thank you Judge Hall for that introduction and for your leadership. I’m pleased to be here.

I would like to address a problem plaguing America ... a problem that you – especially municipal court judges – are in a unique position to address.

“The first duty of society is justice.” Our country’s founders elevated the pursuit of justice to the highest level. That particular observation is most often attributed to Alexander Hamilton.

Yes, the first duty of society is, indeed, justice. But societal duties often aren’t carried out.

The duty of municipalities and counties to support their operations is often placed ahead of justice.

What I’m talking about is the issue of fines, fees and bail and how they are levied in many places, in our state and in America.

People convicted of crimes should face consequences for their behavior, and that may include a monetary sanction.

However, justice is not served when fines or fees are assessed to citizens who cannot afford to pay.

The most burdensome fines and fees often fall most heavily on those who can least afford to pay them.

When they can’t pay, they can lose their jobs, face collection agencies – and even go to jail – until they, or someone pays up.

This is why we refer to this problem as “debtor’s prisons.”

Depending upon where your court is located, you may come under pressure from your local government to place revenue before justice.

But your court should not operate as an ATM for your city council. The courts are one of the three co-equal branches of government that must be funded adequately by their legislative funding authorities.

Only in this way can equitable justice come about.

If the public views your court as a revenue source for your local government, then the cost of justice is too high and the public will become cynical about the fairness of our profession.

This is an everyday problem in America and Ohio. It rarely made headlines until 2015 when the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on the origins of the Ferguson, Missouri disturbances.

The Justice Department called out the Ferguson Municipal Court for its “pattern or practice” of “Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.”

The report went on to observe that, “Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bearden versus Georgia that these kinds of practices – particularly incarceration – are not acceptable unless the courts have assessed the citizen’s ability to pay at sentencing and concluded that he or she can pay – but is refusing to do so.

Since this problem occurs most often at the municipal court level, Bearden v. Georgia should be of particular note to all of you.

Another side of the same coin is pre-trial detention.  We all know that the purpose of bail is to assure that the defendant will appear at all court hearings and trial and to protect the public if the defendant is likely to reoffend while waiting for the case to be disposed. Unfortunately too often bail is set that takes neither purpose into consideration.

Alternatives to costly bail amounts not only comports with the intent of bail but is a wise economic choice.  It costs to maintain defendants in jail.  If they are not a flight risk or public safety risk, what are they doing in jail?  

Bail schedule.  I recognize that we have Crim. R. 46 G.

(G) Bond schedule. Each court shall establish a bail bond schedule covering all misdemeanors including traffic offenses, either specifically, by type, by potential penalty, or by some other reasonable method of classification. The court also may include requirements for release in consideration of divisions (B) and (C)(5) of this rule. Each municipal or county court shall, by rule, establish a method whereby a person may make bail by use of a credit card.

No credit card transaction shall be permitted when a service charge is made against the court or clerk unless allowed by law.

My response to that is two-fold:

We are looking into a change of the language to more accurately reflect the process of bail and its purpose;

Two, there is no prohibition as the rule stands now to incorporate signature or personal recognizance bond as the first and preferred option in the bail bond schedule.

There are tools available to assess defendants for pre-trial release that do not require an in-person interview.  This is an expedited process that benefits the court and the defendant.

Too often a defendant too poor to make bail, an amount that has nothing to do with the person, will lose their home, job, support system, sometimes children.  I have to ask for what?

Also, I am honored to be the current president of the national Conference of Chief Justices. I am also co-chair of the Task Force on Fines Fees and Bail.

The Task Force has drafted guiding principles and developed tools for a wide range of issues — and fines, fees and bail practices is a primary focus for us.

In fact, in May the CCJ and COSCA are hosting a Pretrial Justice Reform Summit in Indianapolis.

The chief justice of every state is invited and asked to bring a five-person team to tackle pretrial reform efforts nationwide.

We are in the process of identifying local judges to attend this summit as part of Ohio’s team.

As with every "new thing" that is introduced to us in the judiciary, the first question should be, "Where do I go to find out more?"

Ohio had already produced and distributed a bench card regarding this topic even before the national Task Force was formed.  In fact our bench card was the model.

There is also an information rich website for the Task Force that is housed at ncsc.org.

Our Judicial College is offering an online course on fines, fees and costs and I urge each of you to take this very thoughtful and important training. As you know the Judicial College uses judges to develop training and curriculum.  This is literally judges training judges.  Men and women who are in your shoes every day.

As a judge, you are in a position of trust and one that focuses on duty to the litigants before you and to the court.

The stakes are high, and the expectations are great.

Having said that, remember to balance your life.

Keep a sense of humor.

Don’t forget to build in time for your family, your spiritual growth and yourself.

You’ll be a better human being, and becoming a better human being will make you an even better judge.

Remember to consider our Supreme Court staff as a resource for you.

Thanks to all of you for listening.

And thank you for your efforts to further the cause of justice in Ohio.

Best of luck.

May God Bless.