Chief Justice candidate Jennifer Brunner unveils vision for Ohio courts
COLUMBUS - As the only candidate in the race to have administered an Ohio statewide office and supervised local government activities in every county of Ohio—and to have served at all three levels of courts in the state (trial court, appellate court and supreme court)—Justice Jennifer Brunner today unveiled a policy agenda to lead Ohio’s judiciary as the next Chief Justice of Ohio.
The Chief Justice is the leader of the state’s judicial branch and makes decisions that affect the direction and orientation of every court in the state.
“My policy agenda to lead Ohio’s judiciary as Ohio’s next Chief Justice is organized around this simple principle: ‘Courts belong to the people.’ My vision for leading Ohio's courts embraces the principles of helping Ohioans have access to their courts while working with judges throughout Ohio as responsive public servants promoting fairness, equality and respect for all persons,” said Brunner, in remarks to the media and supporters streamed live and now available here.
Justice Brunner referred to Ohio’s current Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, the first female Chief Justice in Ohio’s history, as a friend and colleague, stating, “The Ohio judiciary has flourished under Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s leadership, and there is no reason to regress. There is so much more work ahead to help courts continue to grow in responsiveness to current problems of our complex society.”
The policy agenda unveiled by Justice Brunner includes:
Task Force to Establish a Commission on Fairness and Equality in Ohio’s Courts. More than 20 years ago, the Ohio Supreme Court established the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness, which drew members from the courts, the bar, law enforcement, the clergy, academia, and the community. The commission issued a 1999 report that recommended ways to address pre-trial and sentencing transparency and accountability. Today, many of these recommendations remain unaddressed or unfulfilled, and new issues have cropped up, prompting a need to reexamine the issue. To address this, I will convene a diverse task force to establish a permanent Commission on Fairness and Equality in Ohio’s Courts. That commission will recommend reforms for the 21st century and, most importantly, examine every facet of Ohio’s criminal justice system to identify and create solutions for systemic problems that result in unequal treatment of protected classes of individuals in the criminal justice system.
Criminal Sentencing Database. One of the unfulfilled recommendations of the 1999 Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness is a long-overdue data collection effort now being implemented as a pilot program. Judges, policy makers and the public need reliable data, not just anecdotal examples or judgments based on personal belief, to develop practices, policies and laws that can be objectively evaluated to see if they work as intended. The Ohio Supreme Court has empowered a task force to collect data on pre-trial and sentencing practices in relation to demographic characteristics of Ohioans in the state’s criminal justice system. It will identify trends, drawing comparisons in a standardized format for similar types of crimes, criminal records and other sentencing factors, in categories that include race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and, if known, ethnic background and religion. Related to this project is the current development of a uniform sentencing entry for the state’s trial judges. This will aid in capturing accurate data, help judges follow the nuances of all sentencing laws and make criminal justice processes more efficient and cost-effective. Continued development and completion of the statewide database and related projects will be a top priority of my administration.
Specialized dockets. As a common pleas court judge, it was my joy and privilege to initiate Franklin County’s adult felony drug court program in 2004, known as the TIES (Treatment is Essential to Success) Program. I plan to continue Ohio’s national leadership in innovating specialized dockets, sometimes called problem-solving courts. That would include expanding the Supreme Court’s specialized docket support to lower courts and bringing local leaders and participants together from across the state to share and develop best practices, including reliable data to evaluate program effectiveness.
Technology for the courts. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how instrumental technology is to the full and effective functioning of the state’s courts, which were able to meet their state constitutional mandate of remaining open throughout the pandemic with emergency technology grants from the Ohio Supreme Court. But Ohio is a diverse state, from its multi-judge urban courts to its rural county appellate courts that cover multiple counties. When it comes to technology, Ohio’s courts can do better and I know they will. Equalizing and improving technology and system interoperability between courts and the Ohio Supreme Court and making information uniformly accessible to the public will be a top priority in a Brunner administration. In 2021, 143 local court projects will have received more than $8.6 million through the Supreme Court’s Technology Initiative Program. I pledge that as Chief Justice I will work to support needed technology for Ohio's courts and continue those efforts to improve the delivery of local courts’ services and citizens’ equal access to justice.
Campaign and Judicial Integrity. At a time when a bribery scandal involving the state’s largest utility and the current leadership of the executive and legislative branches is roiling state government, I have pledged that I will not accept campaign contributions from any publicly regulated utility in the state.
Fiscal Responsibility. I will use skills developed balancing the budget of the Secretary of State’s Office during the Great Recession to bring leaders together across the Ohio judicial branches to ensure the immediate and long-term fiscal health of the courts as they recover from the pandemic.
Public Education about the Law. The overseas rule of law and anti-corruption work I have engaged in as a legal expert for the U.S. government has informed me about the importance of citizens’ confidence in government. When people believe government works for them, they support its work as only citizens can. Government in turn works better with this kind of participation. In addition to its own Visitor Education Center at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center, the Ohio Supreme Court currently supports the Ohio Center for Law Related Education, housed at the Ohio State Bar Association. I plan to continue and expand support of public education programs aimed at informing young people about government and the work of Ohio’s courts.
Bail Reform. I supported Chief Justice O’Connor’s efforts that resulted in the Supreme Court changing the rules governing bail, bond, and pretrial release in criminal cases. Under that 2020 rule change, courts now must use the least-restrictive bond conditions and least amount of monetary bail to secure the defendant’s appearance. But more must be done, she said. I will continue to bring judges, lawyers and community leaders together to develop and implement reforms that promote good behavior in the community and keep the community safe, such as conditions of bond that include continued employment, drug testing and innovations to promote productive and therapeutically supported behavior while awaiting trial or post-trial hearings. Further, I will create a task force to develop pre-trial programs for people out on bail. Those could include ways to access basic services, employment search training, community service opportunities, drug-and-alcohol treatment and preparedness and educational opportunities. The goal would be to use successful community supervision as a diversion to incarceration when possible.
Conviction Reform. Last year, Chief Justice O’Connor issued guidelines to convene a new Ohio Supreme Court Task Force on wrongful convictions that would “analyze current practices and recommend improvements to further our standards of justice.” I will actively promote and support the success and completion of this work and the consideration of reform recommendations by the Supreme Court and the legal and judicial community.
Opioid Initiative. A top priority of the Brunner Administration will be to continue the work of the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative (RJOI), which brings together leaders from an eight-state region (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) that has been particularly devastated by opioid abuse. The goal of the initiative is for leaders to work more effectively and collaboratively across disciplines to confront this problem. It seeks to speed up responses by state courts, children’s services, criminal justice and treatment systems. According to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, more than 23,700 Ohioans have died from 2010 to 2019 from prescription opioid overdoses. (This does not include the thousands more who have died from non-prescription opioids). Ohio is close to reaching a settlement with four top opioid manufacturers for an $808 million payment to Ohio. I will collaborate with other state leaders so Ohio’s judicial and legal communities can provide their expertise toward meaningful use of these funds to advance effective court programs that provide drug and mental health treatment and counseling to criminal defendants as well as ways to benefit victims, families and the community as we combat the scourge of opioid addiction in Ohio.
Defending judicial independence. I will be a steadfast defender of judicial independence in the face of increasing attacks by partisans and special interests. In 2008 the bipartisan John F. Kennedy Library and Museum awarded me the Profile in Courage Award for my work as Ohio Secretary of State. My commitment to public service and the independence of the judiciary is unwavering, and “fairness, equality and respect” is at the heart of what motivated me in public service.
Thus, it will not matter to me, whether someone has a D or an R after their name, if they attack a judge or a court in this state for doing their job, being impartial and deciding cases fairly, I will defend the judiciary and the rule of law with strength and directness that will be swift and understandable for the benefit of public confidence in our courts.
More on Justice Brunner: Jennifer Brunner was elected as an Associate Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court in November 2020, defeating incumbent Justice Judith French 55.3% to 44.7% garnering 2.69 million votes statewide.
She previously served as a judge of the Tenth District Court of Appeals for six years and the Franklin County Common Pleas Court for nearly five years. She was elected Ohio’s first woman Secretary of State in 2006 and held the office for four years.
Brunner holds 17 years of private law practice experience and has provided rule of law technical expertise to the government of the Republic of Serbia, election observation in the Arab Republic of Egypt, and rule of law instruction at the bar association of Sri Lanka through the U.S. Department of State’s Agency for International Development (USAID), gaining a greater understanding of the importance of a strong judiciary to preserving peace and growing democracy through the rule of law.
A native of Springfield, Ohio, Justice Brunner has been married to Rick Brunner since 1978. They have 3 adult children and 6 grandchildren.
Under the Ohio Constitution, the Chief Justice is a separately elected official serving for a six-year term. The current Chief Justice, Maureen O’Connor, was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2016. She is barred by the constitutional age limit from seeking a third term when her current term expires on Dec. 31, 2022.
There have been only 10 Chief Justices since the position was established in the Ohio Constitution in 1912. The last time there was an election for the position without an incumbent candidate was in 1978.
In addition to deciding cases with the other six Justices, the Chief Justice has the power to shape the administration of justice and the practice of law in the state, as the Ohio Constitution provides that the Chief Justice exercises the power of superintendence of the Ohio judicial system “in accordance with rules promulgated by the Supreme Court.” In addition, among other responsibilities, the Chief Justice decides on motions for disqualification for lower court judges, appoints the judges of the Ohio Court of Claims and assigns visiting judges to hear cases.
“Administrative and policy leadership of the court is not about an ideology of who should win and who should lose,” Justice Brunner said. “It is about a belief and understanding that courts are only as effective as people believe them to be. Good judges and fair courts can make all the difference in the confidence Ohioans have in their judiciary. And that confidence makes our courts more effective.”
A photo of Justice Jennifer Brunner can be downloaded here.