A fierce force for equal justice
If it weren’t for the persistent gerrymandering of Ohio’s congressional map, recently retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor (JD ’80) might be enjoying more well-earned relaxation, rather than putting significant energy into efforts to get a redistricting plan on the ballot for November 2024.
On the other hand, while 38 years of public service might be plenty for some, it’s clear that when she sees a problem materially affecting the people of Ohio, Chief Justice O’Connor will help fix it.
In every role she has played in public life – magistrate, common pleas judge, prosecutor, lieutenant governor, Ohio Supreme Court justice and chief justice – she has always worked to ensure people are treated fairly and justly by public institutions.
When she became a magistrate, she quickly realized that, apart from cases involving adoptions, “nobody comes to court because they want to be there. They’re there because they have problems that they can’t solve themselves, and they’re looking for help,” she says.
Because she is a problem solver and woman of action, Chief Justice O’Connor didn’t simply adopt greater empathy for the people whose lives she had the power to affect; she operationalized her new perspective, getting directly involved in cases at the pre-trial stage to help people reach mutually agreeable solutions themselves, rather than have decisions imposed on them by the court.
Later, as Summit County prosecutor, where her responsibilities included overseeing the county’s Child Support Enforcement Agency (CSEA), she learned that the Children’s Defense Fund had just released a study identifying Summit’s CSEA as the second-worst agency in the state.
“I knew I could do better,” she says, and within two years, the agency was being nominated for awards – a stunning turnaround over such a short period of time, but by no means a solo success, the chief justice says. Her philosophy is “Hire the right people and then let them do their jobs.”
Chief Justice O’Connor understands that the only way to realize her goal of making public institutions serve Ohioans better is to surround herself with great people, listen to what they have to say and build consensus for change. And throughout her career, as she moved into roles with ever-greater authority and influence, this philosophy continued to serve her – and the state’s people – well.
Justice O’Connor was the first woman to lead Ohio’s highest court and has been described as the “architect of the modern courts in Ohio.” A strong advocate for bail reform, she also spearheaded the establishment of standardized data for felony sentencing and created a task force to examine conviction practices and policies for equity and fairness.
The chief justice also presided over the transition to electronic filing at the Supreme Court and sent more than $40 million to local courts around the state, enabling them update their own technology. This was critical to facilitate continuing judicial operations during COVID.
By every measure, Chief Justice O’Connor has had a tremendous impact on Ohio’s courts – and our judicial system is all the better for it.