Chief justice highlights court improvements

Focusing on progress made regarding criminal justice reform, Chief Justice Michael Heavican of the Nebraska Supreme Court delivered his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature Jan. 21.

Heavican began his remarks by acknowledging the service of retired Justices Ken Stephan and Mike McCormack, who left the state Supreme Court last year. He also welcomed Justice Stephanie Stacy who was appointed to fill Justice Stephan’s seat.

Discussing the achievements and challenges facing Nebraska’s court system, Heavican said the state motto of “Equality Before the Law” is a guiding principle for the judicial branch.

“It echoes the most basic principles upon which our state and our nation are founded,” he said. “The motto is carved in stone on the entrance of this building and also appears above the bench in our court, in the governor’s office and in the Warner Chamber.”

The Chief Justice discussed several bills passed by the 2014 Legislature that had a significant impact on the court system during the last year.

One of those bills created the Office of Public Guardian, he said, which serves nearly 500 incapacitated Nebraskans who have no one to serve as their guardian. The office also provides education, information and support to 11,000 individuals who serve as guardians and conservators throughout the state.

Heavican said the court needs to work with the Legislature to continue to improve the office, whose resources already are stretched thin by the number of individuals requiring services.

He also noted the success of LB605, which created important criminal justice reforms in Nebraska. The impact has been particularly significant within the state’s probation system, he said.

Among other provisions, the bill provided for new day and evening reporting centers for adult probation clients. Every reporting center has a supervised substance abuse supervision (SASS) program, he said.

“These centers average 6,000 visits from probation clients each month and provide services in every major community across the state,” he said. “We are proud that 89 percent of the clients released from the SASS program in 2015 have been drug-free for at least one year.”

In addition, Heavican highlighted progress in juvenile justice reform, improved access to the court system for self-represented litigants and technological advancements.

“The mission of Nebraska’s judicial branch is to provide the citizens of this great state with an open, fair, efficient and independent system for the advancement of justice under the law,” Heavican said. “We work to provide access to justice for all Nebraskans and to be certain that in Nebraska there is ‘Equality Before the Law.’”

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