Justice Brunner outlines plans for a permanent Commission on Fairness and Equality in Ohio’s Courts and Legal System
November 15 (COLUMBUS) — A more than 20-year-old vision for reform of Ohio’s legal system must be fulfilled to ensure that all Ohioans—regardless of their racial, nationality, socio-economic, gender and other diversity status—are assured equal treatment under the law.
That’s the even-handed treatment that Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner is committed to and has the capacity to initiate as she runs for a six-year term for Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court on the November 2022 ballot. A current justice of the court who holds experience as both a trial and appellate court judge in the state’s most populous county, along with statewide administrative experience as former Ohio Secretary of State and 17 years in private practice, Brunner unveiled her campaign platform on September 14, with a vision centered around removing barriers to fairness and equality in Ohio’s courts.
Today, Justice Brunner announced the details of a central plank of her platform: the establishment of a permanent “Commission on Fairness and Equality in Ohio’s Courts and Legal System.”
“When people think of courts their greatest hope--no matter their role in the courts--is to be treated fairly, win or lose,” said Justice Brunner. “That is the touchstone of public confidence in the courts. We must fearlessly and with a clear-eyed view identify and eliminate systemic inequality that has been shown to exist in our courts and legal system in Ohio,” said Brunner.
“In addition to our courts, our legal system must create a pathway for members of our many branches of human diversity in this state to be full participants; doing this will strengthen and grow the power of the people in our democratic processes embodied in our courts,” she added.
Justice Brunner points to a 1999 report compiled by the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness—which was charged with a thorough examination of the state’s courts, legal educational institutions and judicial employment opportunities—and that still holds keys to making courts and Ohio’s legal system fairer even more than two decades after its release.
Written by a committee of judges, attorneys, clergy members and legal scholars after a dozen public hearings across the state, the 1999 report suggested a series of action steps to improve the racial fairness found in Ohio’s court system. A generation later, so many more of the recommendations need to make the leap from the pages of the report to the Ohio Revised Code and the rules and practices used in Ohio’s courts.
In an effort to address these longstanding issues affecting fundamental fairness, Justice Brunner has pledged to establish a permanent Commission on Fairness and Equality in Ohio’s Courts and Legal System.
Brunner stated that the effort begins with a task force charged with recommending how a permanent commission would work best within Ohio’s diverse judicial system. The charge of the task force would be to, within 6 months, complete the following tasks:
define what discrimination looks like in law schools, law firms, bar associations, public legal programs, and in the courts,
focusing on fairness and equality in Ohio’s criminal courts, determine existing resources available to identify and address unequal treatment in sentencing, such as the currently developing statewide sentencing database,
make recommendations on how to leverage existing resources available to law schools, law firms, bar associations, public legal programs and in the courts to create a working, ongoing and effective commission to strengthen the accountability of Ohio’s legal system to fairness and equality,
develop a mission statement for the commission and define its structure of accountability,
make recommendations for the most representative and effective types of members to carry out this mission, along with recommendations on terms and nomination processes,
define the scope of the commission’s work, such as, to continually examine Ohio’s criminal justice system at each stage from arrest to post-conviction, identifying practices, rules and statutes that may stem from, be based in, continue or promote disparate treatment based on factors for which differentiation is neither legal nor morally acceptable; extend this analysis to law schools, law firms, bar associations, public legal programs and the civil, domestic and juvenile workings of Ohio courts
recommend procedures for the commission to continually reexamine the scope of its work over time along with an approval process that would permit the commission to expand or redirect the commission’s focus and mission consistent with current public needs,
recommend means for public participation in the work of the commission and at what points in its development and operation public hearings would be in order and suggest means by which the public could be continually informed about the commission’s work; i.e., web portals, searchable data indexes, video and other forms of accessible public information,
develop recommended budget and staffing structure for the commission’s operation, and
recommend a cross-training protocol for familiarizing members of the commission with similarities and differences among their areas of expertise and integrating education on cultural awareness among and between them.
Justice Brunner explained her reasoning for first forming a task force to develop direction for the permanent commission.
“The judicial system needs to operate in the way that courts are supposed to--beginning with a blank tablet, free of bias or preconceived notions, gather the facts, objectively analyze them, seeking public participation and operating according to fair and orderly procedures to reach an equitable outcome,” Brunner continued. “A task force of diverse individuals who do not have any personal stake based on being employed by a new commission, but rather, are focused on the mission and the best ways to accomplish it, may include individuals with rich and deep experience in Ohio’s legal system as well as those who have experienced it as a defendant or party to litigation, along with those who educate students of the law and law students themselves. There are many who could lend their expertise but would not desire to be or even be in a position to full-time develop the commission as an employee. In short, we will take the best minds and hearts available and put them to work to create a pathway to success for a permanent commission to fulfill our role in providing fairness, equality and respect to all persons in what we do in our legal system in Ohio,” Brunner said.
Justice Brunner noted that the 1999 report on racial fairness identified racial disparities that “have not improved left untended,” she said. “And there are also other diversity concerns that need to be addressed to ensure fairness to all, such as nationality, socio-economic, gender and LGBTQ inequality, for example,” Brunner said.
With the Supreme Court’s pilot program underway to gather sentencing data statewide for demographic and other comparisons, many judges around the state have been hesitant to join the effort. Regardless, Brunner plans to work with the state’s judges to address and overcome those concerns. She cited public confidence as being central to seeing this project into full operation. “People know when something doesn’t seem fair,” Brunner said. “Cases like these feed the public perception of a system slanted against people of color or other diverse communities.”
Justice Jennifer Brunner is the only candidate in the race who pledges to continue and fully develop the statewide sentencing database and the corollary uniform sentencing entry to address systemic racial unfairness issues.
During the public hearings held by the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness in the 1990s, many members of minority groups gave emotional testimony that reflected their despair at a legal system they saw as stacked against them. As one told the commission: “When will justice be for all of us?...When will race and economic status take a backseat to fairness?”
Two decades later, Justice Brunner is looking to fully build on the efforts begun by the current Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and bring to full fruition that work and more that are so necessary to bridging the divides in fairness and accountability identified a generation ago.