USA TODAY Honors Former Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor

Maureen O’Connor is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a follow-up to Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s winners at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Maureen O’Connor, who has held elected statewide office longer than any woman in Ohio’s history, grew up in an Irish Catholic family steeped in hard work, service to others and personal responsibility.

Her grandmother, Eleanora Murphy Neff, set the best example. Neff joined the workforce during the Great Depression and World War II, working as a social worker. On Saturday morning, Neff put O’Connor and his siblings to work.

“I remember cleaning a house, there would be a halfway house for women coming out of prison. I wasn’t in love with spending a Saturday – I think maybe more than a Saturday, if I remember fine,” said O’Connor, who grew up near Cleveland as one of eight children. “We had to clean it up because these women were going to come here. … I would never have said to my grandmother, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ I mean, I didn’t even say that privately to my mom.”

The lesson of not complaining, just getting the job done, has served O’Connor well in his professional career.

O’Connor is a graduate of Cleveland State University School of Law. She served as a probate court magistrate and a common pleas court judge in Summit County. When a vacancy arose, she decided the county attorney job was too important a job to leave to just anyone.

After her two sons graduated from high school, O’Connor agreed to run on the statewide ticket with Republican Bob Taft in 1998. She served as lieutenant governor, then won the election to the Supreme Court of Ohio in 2002. O’Connor became the first woman to serve as Chief Justice in 2011. In court, she heard more than 2,500 oral arguments and wrote 421 majority opinions and 77 dissenting opinions.

During her final years in public office, O’Connor became persona non grata within her own political party. The Ohio Republican Party removed its picture from the headquarters wall, and Republican lawmakers in the state threatened impeachment. His sins? O’Connor sided with three Democrats on the ground in rejecting legislative and congressional political maps drawn by Republicans after the 2020 census.

O’Connor brushed off criticism, saying publicly after the 2022 midterm elections, “I’ve been called worst by best. And I don’t care.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor resigned from the Ohio Supreme Court on December 31. Age limits under the Ohio Constitution prevented her from running again. She has held elected statewide office longer than any woman in state history. Courtney Hergesheimer/Columbus Dispatch

If they can do it, I can do it.

I was a probate court magistrate and that gave me perspective behind the bench. And I thought, I’m a magistrate now, there’s no reason I can’t be a judge. So I worked hard, did what needed to be done, and became a judge on the Court of Common Pleas. Again, if they can do it, I can do it. You watch, you learn, and you realize that this is something you might want to do. Then you determine how you are going to do it. And you do.

Maureen O’Connor If they can do it, I can do it. You watch, you learn, and you realize that this is something you might want to do. Then you determine how you are going to do it. And you do.

I admire many women who have quietly advanced the cause. And I think of my grandmother, born in 1901. She was a very progressive woman, very progressive. She was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Republican. But she believed in equality. She believed in helping people, she was a social worker, and she was overwhelmingly Catholic. This is how I was brought up.

So that’s the most important thing in my life. My mother and grandmother are a great example of hard work, championing the cause of women, and having faith in all of their granddaughters and daughters. I am grateful. But I am also grateful to all the women who came before them.

You would expect me to say when I was elected chief justice or when I entered the court. My proudest moment, professionally, was when I had no opposition in 2016 for this job because it meant to me that I had done things rather well. I had support on both sides of the aisle, justice was behind me.

And that helped that previous election, I won all 88 counties and in the previous election I won all 88 counties. So, chances are I will win all 88 counties. There are plenty of reasons the Democrats haven’t turned someone against me. But what I heard is: you are doing a good job.

Maureen O’Connor poses next to her portrait after the dedication ceremony at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center. Doral Chenoweth, Doral Chenoweth / The Columbus Dispatch

I have been very lucky in my life. I have good health. I’ve had great jobs in my career, two healthy sons, many grandchildren who are all doing very well.

I have never experienced personal drama. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the devastation people go through when they have tragedy in their lives.

The standard definition – you do the right thing despite the odds. Last year, this word was often used with my name. I receive letters from people thanking me for my courage. And I tell myself that I don’t have the courage to do the right thing. Under the cutting card, I don’t feel like I showed courage.

People think, well, you’re a Republican and you sided with three Democrats, that must have taken some courage. But I’ve never been that kind of Republican. I’ve never been that kind of party animal.

Let’s put it this way, the bridges I burned, I never would have used to cross anyway.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of Ohio conducted oral arguments in cases via online video during the coronavirus pandemic. Eric Albrecht/Expedition

Try things out to see if they work. If they don’t, take it off, move on. Determine what you want to do. You can figure this out by determining what you don’t want to do. Don’t lock yourself into a position because you think you have to.

I went through three majors when I was in undergrad. I was going to be a teacher. After college I worked on a Masters in Teaching and started teaching students and realized I didn’t love kids enough to do that as a career. I really give a lot of credit to people who are teachers. But I said teaching was not for me and thousands of children benefited from this decision.

The other thing is not thinking that your career and your life are going to go from point A to point Z. If you go through life with blinders on, you are going to miss life.

Posted 09:45 UTC 19 Mar 2023 Updated 09:45 UTC 19 Mar 2023


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