Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
American Bar Association 2018 Midyear House of Delegates Meeting
Feb. 5, 2018

Thank you, Deborah, for that warm introduction. I would also like to thank President Hilarie Bass, President-elect Robert Carlson, and all members of the House of Delegates.

As the president of the Conference of Chief Justices, it is my honor to continue the tradition of addressing the ABA House of Delegates.

This tradition — in its ninth year — reinforces the strong alliance between the ABA and our state courts. As we all know, attorneys play a key role in supporting fair and impartial courts. You educate citizens about how the system works. And you help protect access for all. The Conference of Chief Justices appreciates the work you do to strengthen our justice system.

Allow me to start by sharing some news, and because I consider myself someone who sees the glass half full, I’ll start with the good news. The National Center for State Courts recently released its annual survey on the “State of the State Courts,” and it shows that the courts remain the most trusted branch of state government.

A whopping 71 percent of the respondents have confidence in their courts, compared with 61 percent in their governors and 57 percent in their state lawmakers. As we continue to try to better serve the public, I think you’ll agree this is great news

But we have work to do. The survey also reports that six out of 10 people believe state court judges are out of touch with community concerns. And 73 percent said delivering access to justice in rural courts is a problem. The survey also shows that 78 percent view the opioid epidemic as a major problem in their communities, one that’s not improving.

These drugs are killing our family members and our friends — in big cities like Chicago and in small ones like Chillicothe, Ohio. In the East, in the West and everywhere in between. Because they are so available and because they are so lethal — these drugs are being abused nationwide and are literally tearing apart our social fabric.

If you don’t believe me, visit a courthouse in West Virginia or New Mexico or Massachusetts, or just about any other state in the country.  And just watch. Watch as judges make decisions about whether opioid abusers should go to jail or to a treatment center. About which treatment they should receive. And about where their children should live. This epidemic has flooded the courts with abusers and their relatives, all of whom desperately need our help. Judges and court administrators recognize their role in managing this epidemic.

We need to be a part of the solution. The Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators have formed a national opioid task force. The task force’s goals are ambitious. This new Task Force met just last week to identify these goals.

The identification of court programs that have met with success is crucial. The state courts realize that it is only by partnering in our communities with treatment providers, state and local agencies and the private sector that we will effectively deal with the opioid epidemic.

The emphasis that this is a health crisis more so than a criminal matter is a paradigm shift that has taken root in the legal and medical communities and in many instances in the policy makers of federal, state and local governments.

Indiana’s Chief Justice, Loretta Rush co-chairs the Task Force. Stay tuned as policies and practices and education and trainings are identified for the judiciary and court staff that move us in the direction of effectively addressing this epidemic.

The task force will have membership consisting of judges and others who are on the front lines of this epidemic working in family courts and other trial courts.  I want to switch gears and talk about money, specifically court fines, fees and bail — and the desire by many state court judges to reform this system.

If you live in Ohio, as I do, you may have heard of Markcus Brown, who has become a poster child for bail reform. He lives in Dayton. He and some friends were at a bus stop last year, when police officers approached them for violating the transit authority’s dress code: They were wearing hoodies and saggy pants.

The ban on hoodies and saggy pants is part of a larger set of rules that officials there say has helped decrease criminal activity on transit authority property. Brown, who was warned twice before about trespassing on transit authority property, refused to cooperate with the officers, so they took him to jail. His bail was set at $150. A lot of people can come up with $150 very quickly. Maybe everyone in this room can.

But Markcus Brown couldn’t. He spent nine days in jail until his mother could secure a car title loan so he could make bail. While he was in jail, he missed a job interview. After he got out, he learned he was banned from public buses in Dayton, so he now needed a car before he could find a job. But if you can’t come up with $150 for bail, what kind of car can you afford? Probably not one that runs.

And there’s the irony right there: Drug dealers, burglars and other criminals who threaten public safety often have no trouble coming up with their bail and are back on the streets in no time. Non-violent offenders sometimes spend days or weeks in jail before their cases get to court.

It has been my honor and privilege to co-chair the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, and I have what some would call a very strong opinion on this issue: No one in America should be sent to jail solely because they are poor.

In too many instances, state and local officials treat the court system as an ATM for their spending priorities. This must change, and our task force is committed to taking steps to drive that change.

The task force has developed a bench card for judges to help determine a person’s ability to pay as well as other solutions, which can be found on the National Center for State Court’s website. Even people who don’t particularly care about the Markcus Browns of the world often care that Dayton and most other cities are paying as much as $200 a day, with no hope of recouping that amount in costs, to incarcerate these non-violent offenders in a local jail. I think you’d agree this is not a good use of taxpayers’ money, and we need to do better.

If you’re as passionate about this issue as I am, please join me to help make a difference in this area. In closing, I would like to recognize one of the most important roles of the ABA and that is the long standing commitment of the ABA to assist with the selection of our judiciary. Whether it’s weighing in on the way states elect, select or appoint judges or taking an active role in the appointment process of our federal judiciary.

Please continue to ensure that the treasured practice of an apolitical, nonpartisan evaluation continues.  That legal competency, experience, and judicial temperament are the paramount factors that must guide the process. 

We, all people in America, whether citizens, residents, or visitors, need and deserve a judiciary that is independent, vital, and above reproach. On behalf of the Conference of Chief Justices, thank you, President Bass and the House of Delegates for allowing me to address you.

It’s my hope that I’ve made it clear that state courts are vitally committed to accountability, impartiality and fairness. I also hope that in 2018, we — the Conference of Chief Justices and the ABA — will double down on our common cause to support equal and accessible justice for all.

Thank you.