Ohio’s Chief Justice Stands Up to Jeff Sessions in Support of Low-Income People

In late December, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded crucial guidance that advised courts not to unfairly punish people simply for being poor. While Sessions furthers the criminalization of poverty, Ohio’s chief justice is reminding her judges that the people who pass through their courtrooms are not ATMs.

On January 29, Maureen O’Connor sent a letter to all Ohio trial judges to ensure they were aware that the law has not changed and “court cases are not business transactions.” Her thoughtful letter is a stark contrast to Jeff Sessions’ abrupt decision to rescind a guidance that had helped judges and court administrators around the country reform court practices to guard against abuses like debtors’ prisons — the jailing of poor people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees.

O’Connor made clear that despite the department’s decision, the Constitution remains the supreme law of the land and that the rights enshrined in that document are unchanged. She also reminded judges of their obligation to serve the public and promote fairness and equal treatment of rich and poor:

“We have a special responsibility to act in a manner that bolsters public trust and confidence in the fair administration of justice for everyone. Practices that penalize the poor simply because of their economic state; that impose unreasonable fines, fees, or bail … upon on our citizens to raise money or cave to local funding pressure; or that create barriers to access to justice are simply wrong. No rescission of guidance by the [DOJ] changes that.”

As co-chair of the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices, O’Connor has long been a leader in Ohio and the nation on reforming practices that criminalize poverty. With the stroke of a pen, O’Connor showed leadership at a time when the country needs it. Her letter brings attention to the devastating impact of excessive court fines and fees and bail practices on the lives of low-income people and the justice system’s obligation to protect people’s rights, even when they are poor.

In Ohio, particularly, O’Connor’s letter is crucial.

During the ACLU of Ohio’s 2013 investigation into debtors’ prison practices across the state, we met countless people who were tethered to the criminal justice system simply because they were too poor to pay off court fines and fees. We issued a report that told the story of countless more people who were given unjustly high court fines and fees that they could not afford to pay and rigid payment plans that kept them trapped in the grips of poverty.

One young couple owed thousands of dollars in fines and fees from low-level convictions, such as disorderly conduct and drinking underage. Each month, the couple was forced to make the impossible choice of whose fines they would continue to pay so one of them could stay at home with their infant while the other would spend another 10 days in jail for fines that they simply could not afford to pay. Our report also told the story of a man who could not afford to pay fines because he was recently laid off. With no health insurance and mounting medical debt, he simply could not pay his court fines.

After hearing these stories, many Ohio judges admitted that they were unaware that existing laws, including Ohio statutes and the U.S. Constitution, limit the ways in which court fines and fees can be imposed and collected. Chief Justice O’Connor took action to make sure that state judges would no longer be confused. She issued a detailed bench card outlining the rules for collecting fines and fees, ensured that judges throughout Ohio were trained on those rules, and held accountable judges who continued to violate the law by jailing people for nonpayment without giving them a hearing on their ability to pay.

The stark reality is that in many courts across the country, the size of your bank account determines the type of justice you receive. But Chief Justice O’Connor’s actions show that judges can chart a path toward fairness and restore trust in the justice system. ACLU affiliates in Mississippi, Washington, New Hampshire, and Michigan, are continuing this work – implementing reforms, leading community conversations, and making progress.

The abdication of leadership by the Department of Justice in the fight against debtors’ prisons and other injustices stemming from abusive court fines and fees has opened a path to leadership for others. Chief Justice O’Connor took the first step forward. Other state chief justices should follow suit and remind judges in their states that the U.S. Constitution remains the law of the land, regardless of what Jeff Sessions may think or do.

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TOPDOG1

Jeff Sessions; His inbreeding should be obvious. He has several (if you notice) missing genetic characteristics. High Intelligence is not the only one. His distorted and twisted view of reality is seriously in question. Just another greedy corporate puppet, Big Pharma or Big Oil occasionally dresses him, feeds him and then dangles him in political arena's. His 'Igor' personality would do better in a Dracula move than public office. I certainly object to an unfit INBRED KEEBLER ELF like this CREATURE being allowed to make decisions that affect or are forced upon me. He should have never been allowed into any position of public responsibility. T.H.C. Is a critical and vital nutrient just like vitamin C. B or D. These incompetent idiots are making war on a vitamin. T.H.C. Is no more a drug than vitamin A.
What sessions needs is a D.N.A. drug to help genetically challenged inbreeds. I am sure marijuana would help his condition.

Connie

I am sorry to think people are poor just because the by pot, some are poor from alcoholisim, so does this mean equality on these proposals. Pot lowers your reflexes just like alcoholism. Let's not put our priorities in tact. We need to protect Americans for safety. Understand, pot is good for medicinals purposes. But a drink can take the ridge off. Most drugs are addictive, but so is pot and alcohol. If u have the money for any of the above, but where do we start holding the fact of accountablity. Choices are important and intelligence is helpful. So what u are poor, that does not mean it is ok to smoke dope, I am sure there were other things the person should of bought, I am thinking, if they can not make intelligent decision. Maybe someone else should be taking control of there money and not a family member. Thank you for your time. Connie

Anonymous

Regardless of your statement I see no where in the article that blames anything on pot or alcohol. It seems to me that either the SCOTUS can uphold the Constitution or they can reinterpret it. It seems the majority has chozen the latter.

Anonymous

So you think someone should take control of "their" money and not a family member. Who would you suggest....
Sounds like a very fascist idea!!!

jntj

Sessions is a racist, just like his master, Trump. Together, they're doing an outstanding job of dismantling the remaining mechanisms that force the judicial system to treat all citizens as equals.

Carole Cooper

Thank you Justice O’Connor, thank you so much.

Anonymous

We need to also consider the fact that innocent, poverty-stricken and minorities, simply cannot afford justice! Public Defenders stand woefully ineffective against the treasury & power of the state (e.g. the now debunked "shaken baby syndrome" (SBS) wrongfull convictions).

james

I never thought this would ever be looked at because its been going on for so long now with fines and cost going up ten times what they were in the seventies but minimum wage has barely gone up one time.this shows how the courts and law enforcement view the people they were hired to serve and protect . the fear these people have stuffed down our throats has put us back a hundred years or more . maybe justice OConnor has pushed the start button to reverse the raping of the thousands of voiceless citizens in this country but it will be a long road that someone has finally brought out for all to see . thank you

Anonymous

I feel that by allowing Marijuana to be legalize under federal law would greatly decrease the courts load for minor violations. They need to regulate marijuana like they due cigarettes and alcohol. They should require testing to show the strength of the Marijunna and that it the supply is not laced with other drugs. The proof of the use for pain management has been proven for years. They have figured out how to remove the part of the drug that makes you high.

Anonymous

Fascism is running rampant in this country! Either we can be a truly free people or we can call our selves a free people while goosestep our way to fascism! The Constitution is the supreme law of the land but that does little good if the SCOTUS is going to rewrite it or not apply it equally to all!

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