Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Chief Justice Praises Peers at Magistrates Conference, Presents Perils of Issue 1

If anyone can appreciate the unique role magistrates play in the Ohio judicial system, it’s former probate court magistrate and current Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice, Maureen O’Connor.

“The world of a magistrate is dynamic. That is a term that fits because it speaks of growth and it speaks of change,” she said.

At the Ohio Association of Magistrates’ (OAM) annual fall conference in Columbus, the chief justice praised her peers as the group has grown to 820 judicial officers statewide.

“You are in your role for a very good reason. A judge made a ruling about you and found you knowledgeable about the law and trustworthy in your decision-making,” she said.

While discussing OAM’s evolution since its inception in 1989, Chief Justice O’Connor also brought up a current topic that could significantly change proceedings for the magistrates in both criminal and juvenile courts: state Issue 1.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which will be on the ballot in November, would make drug possession of less than 20 grams, including the lethal opioid fentanyl, a misdemeanor without a jail sentence for first- and second-time offenders in a two-year span.

“No supervision, no probation, no parole, literally get out of jail free, that is what this constitutional amendment is asking or will impose,” Chief Justice O’Connor said.

Her concerns touched deeper on the potential consequences that would make treatment without the threat of jail time less appealing for those accused and how she believes the proposed constitutional amendment would leave Ohio with the weakest drug crime laws in the country.

“What we do get as Ohioans from Issue 1 is destruction of our drug courts, and we get the very real possibility that an unimagined leniency toward killer drugs would draw more dealers to our state,” she said.

Like the other legal minds at the OAM conference, the chief justice recognizes the need for criminal justice reform for drug offenses and that addiction is an illness that needs treatment. However, she said other chronic diseases don’t cause the same repercussions as illegal drug use.

“You don’t steal to get your insulin, you don’t steal to get your Lipitor, and you don’t break into people's homes to get your heart medication,” she said.

The criminal component of substance dependency that directly impacts communities was one point that especially concerned Melissa West, the chief magistrate for Hamilton County Probate Court.

“Especially as an African-American, I worry about inner-cities when you have people walking around the streets with large sums of drugs on their possession that don’t have any consequence for having that,” she said.

The specifics within the proposed amendment have raised red flags for numerous lawyers, but the vessel itself revising the Ohio Constitution is the thing many find the most difficult to endorse.

“Whenever you try something really new, like this wants to do, you have to tweak it, and when you do it as a constitutional amendment you can’t tweak except by another constitutional amendment,” said Magistrate Nancy McMillen, who represents Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court.

Along with using her platform to spread awareness on the issue, the chief justice asks the magistrates to do the same.

“Please, you need to speak up locally on this potential menace. I need your help in spreading this word. Ohio needs your help in spreading this word,” Chief Justice O’Connor said.