Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
2014 OSBA Annual Convention
May 1, 2014

Thank you Jonathan (Hollingsworth) for that introduction and for the invitation to speak at the bar’s annual convention. Thank you as well for your leadership of the OSBA.

The annual convention is one of the highlights of the calendar for the judicial and legal communities, and I always look forward to the opportunity to offer this address.

Congratulations are in order for the bar’s president-elect, Martin Mohler, whom I’m looking forward to working with over the next year.

Congratulations as well to my former colleague, Justice Stratton, for receiving the state bar’s highest honor.

To all the members of the bar from all corners of the state, thank you for that reception. And thank you for all you do in the service of justice.

It’s fitting that this year we gather on Law Day 2014. The theme of this year’s celebration fits very nicely with my topic. The Law Day theme is “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters.”

I’m going to use my brief time with you today to share a plan I have that will strengthen our democracy in Ohio and support the rule of law by elevating Ohio’s judicial elections.

Last year I stood before you and offered eight ideas for strengthening judicial elections in Ohio. These ideas were posed as questions. Now, I believe I have some answers.

Today, I am here to announce a specific three-point plan and to ask for your support.

After careful study and conferring with lawyers, judges, elected leaders and citizens in every corner of the state, I have concluded that the plan I offer you today will strengthen judicial elections in Ohio, empower Ohio voters, and support the highest quality judiciary possible.

I have said it many times and it’s worth repeating: Ohio has one of the best judiciaries anywhere, and that’s because of the men and women serving on the bench.

But, I am as convinced as ever that we can improve the way we select judges and enhance confidence in our judiciary.

There are three reasons we must act:

  1. Polls show that even though Ohioans want to continue to elect judges they believe that judges are influenced by politics, by contributions, and by other factors.
  2. The numbers are clear that at least one quarter of the electorate does not participate in judicial races.
  3. The level of knowledge and understanding about the judiciary among the general public is inadequate. Voters do not have easy access to quality information.

So, one year ago I proposed my eight ideas, and I asked you and our fellow Ohioans to examine these questions and consider how – together – we might strengthen judicial elections.

I started with the simple premise that clearly Ohioans want to vote for their judges and then asked: How can we make that system better?

Since I last spoke to you, I have been discussing these ideas around the state at gatherings large and small, from statewide conferences to noon Rotary meetings. I met with the leadership of the Ohio Judicial Conference, the Ohio State Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, and the leadership of the General Assembly and the Executive branch.

I also presented the plan to the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission and met with several Ohio labor organizations. I encouraged judges, attorneys, groups, and the general public to weigh in on the eight ideas at the judicial selection website.

It became clear over the last year after hearing from legislative leaders, partnering organizations, and from the public that advocating for all eight proposals would not be productive at this time. It is clear to me that some of the ideas are not going to fly.

So, I have arrived at a three-point plan that I believe has broad consensus, that taken together,  would significantly strengthen judicial elections in Ohio, and that I hope you will join me in supporting.

The three points of my plan are as follows:

  1. Elevate judicial elections by moving them to odd years and moving them to the top of the ballot
  2. Educate voters about judicial elections by encouraging them to participate and giving them the information they need to make informed decisions.
  3. Increase the basic qualifications to serve as a judge to make an outstanding judiciary even better.

I will run through each of these very briefly here for you today. I encourage you to read more by visiting OhioJudicialReform.org.

First, we need to elevate judicial elections. We need to lift them up. We need to make them more visible to Ohio voters and also demonstrate that they are no less valued or less important than races in the legislative and executive branches.

How do we do this? By taking two of the ideas I proposed last year and combining them into one:

I propose that we amend the Ohio Constitution to move all judicial races to odd years while at the same time making some modest changes in the Ohio Revised Code to place these races at the top of the ballot.

This would make the odd years in Ohio not the “off-year elections” as they are so often called. Instead, these years would come to be known as the judicial years, the years when we go about the important business of electing the men and women to serve on the bench in Ohio at every level.

Judges would appear in a less crowded field, and judicial elections would get the attention they deserve. The first thing voters would see would be judicial races.

As it stands now – during presidential and mid-term elections – judicial races get lost in the shuffle. The judiciary competes for attention with partisan candidates for president, senator, congress, governor and others who are able to shout their messages while judicial candidates can only whisper.

Many Ohioans don’t even vote for judges because they get tired by the time they reach judges’ names at the end of the ballot.

My research last year found that on average 25 percent of the time when voters show up at the polls, they do not bother to cast a vote for judges down the ticket. In 2012, in Cuyahoga County the drop off was 40 percent. When often half of all eligible voters aren’t coming to the polls at all, this judicial drop off means that judges are being selected by in some cases one quarter of the electorate.

This is unacceptable. If we elevate judicial races by moving them to odd years and to the top of the ballot, voter participation will increase.

But elevating judicial elections is not enough.

The second piece of my plan is integral to the first.

It is not enough that we simply highlight judicial elections in the hopes that more voters go to the polls and cast a ballot for their judges. We must also take active measures to encourage voter participation and give voters the information they need to make informed choices.

So, I am announcing today that we will launch a comprehensive voter engagement and information program.

The program I envision will for the first time provide voters statewide with a website that will be a one-stop-shop for quality information about the candidates for judge at every level.

The program also will use traditional media, social media, and other methods throughout the year to educate voters about the responsibility they have to participate in judicial elections and to actively encourage them to meet this responsibility.

When taken together with my proposal to move judicial elections to separate years and up to the top of every ballot, the result will be more citizens voting for judge and doing so in an informed way. And, more of these citizens will be making their votes based on quality, substantive information about the candidates and their qualifications for office.

Let’s put an end to the name game.

I am very happy to report that we have secured three very important partners in this effort.

First and foremost is the Ohio State Bar Association. I am delighted to tell you that yesterday, the Board of Governors agreed to sign on to our voter education program. The OSBA’s participation is critical to our success.

The 30,000 members of the bar in Ohio will be an effective army of supporters to encourage Ohioans to use this powerful new tool. I want to thank the leadership for having the vision to see the importance of this work.

I am also happy to report that the League of Women Voters will be a partner. I have met with League President Nancy Brown several times to discuss the need for improved voter participation and education in judicial races, and the League’s partnership will be indispensible.

Since 1920, the League of Women Voters has worked to support an informed and engaged electorate. Their networks and resources will contribute to the success of our efforts.

And our final partner in this effort is critical ...

I am very pleased to announce today the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron will serve as the home for Ohio’s first ever statewide judicial voter education and outreach program.

The Bliss Institute’s Executive Director John Green has been an enthusiastic supporter and participant. Housing the program at the institute will give us the necessary resources we need to launch next year, and it will give us the credibility that comes with an institution of higher learning of their standing.

By combining the existing resources and abilities of these organizations, we will be able to launch this program for the 2015 judicial races without the use of any tax dollars. Moving forward, we envision that this will become a permanent fixture of Ohio judicial elections.

I believe this has the potential to be a national model. Once again, Ohio leads the way.

The third piece of my plan is to increase the basic qualifications to serve as a judge.

Over the years, several pieces of legislation have addressed increasing the number of years of practice necessary to run for or be appointed to a judgeship. Currently, an attorney needs only six years experience before assuming the bench.

Three recent legislative proposals would have implemented longer years of practice requirements for the common pleas bench (8 years), the appellate bench (10 years), and Supreme Court Justices (12 years), although some argue that trial judges need more experience than appellate judges.

This is not a new idea, and many groups for years have advocated for better equipped judges stepping into the courtroom for the first time.

Let me conclude by addressing the four proposals that I don’t intend to pursue at this time. They are being discarded reluctantly, but not permanently. They still present good ideas worth considering if conditions change.

Those four proposals include:

It’s been said that “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable.”

Based on the considerable feedback I received from leaders on both sides of the isle, the simple fact of the matter is that these four ideas are not attainable at this time.

Of these four, the hardest to give up on now is the party affiliation idea.

It’s worth noting that more than half of the judges that come to the bench in Ohio are appointed by the governor. Add to that an overwhelming lack of competitive races in judicial elections and the result is that Ohioans have essentially – and maybe unwittingly – abandoned head-to-head matchups to determine who sits on the bench.

If 50 percent of Ohio judges get on the bench by appointment and two-thirds are unopposed at election time, are we really selecting our judges by virtue of an election?

These facts, to my knowledge, haven’t been widely shared with Ohio voters.

Again, that goes back to the need to educate voters.

Of the eight proposals, this one drew the most interest and the most comments on the judicial selection website. Public comment was split right down the middle.

This idea also generated the loudest response from the audience when I answered a rhetorical “no” to the question of whether party affiliation has any bearing on races for an office that requires absolute impartiality.

I was also pleased to see the statewide association of common pleas judges agreed with this sentiment by adopting a resolution that states “this organization agrees that partisan politics plays no role in the function of an independent judiciary.”

Thanks to Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael P. Donnelly for championing the judicial election reform plan.

So, today I ask your support for my 3-point plan to strengthen judicial elections and empower Ohio voters.

Let’s elevate judicial races by moving them to their own year and to the top of the ballot. Let’s educate Ohio voters by building the best ongoing judicial election information and engagement program this country has ever seen. And let’s increase the level of experience we require of our judicial candidates.

I will be meeting with legislative leaders and the governor in the coming weeks to urge them to move forward with the necessary legislation to enact these ideas.

Please visit OhioJudicialReform.org to read more about my plan. And I hope you will join us in these efforts.

Thank you for allowing me the time to speak with you today. Thank you as well for your interest in this important topic.

God bless.