Chief justice hails Nebraska coronavirus response, notes challenges

Focusing on the courts’ continuing pandemic response, Chief Justice Michael Heavican of the Nebraska Supreme Court delivered his State of the Judiciary address to lawmakers Jan. 21.

The head of the state’s judicial branch began his remarks by noting the importance of maintaining access to the courts during a challenging year of logistical obstacles and staff shortages.

“This year, I report to you that the courts have not only remained open, but have adapted to the realities of the pandemic,” Heavican said. “Our judges indicate that case backlogs are minimal. That assertion is supported by case management statistics. Few states have achieved such success.”

Courts across Nebraska have used technology to conduct hearings virtually, he said, which has prevented delays and been more efficient for attorneys and their clients. Surveys have found that a majority of Nebraskans believe courts should continue to offer hearings virtually even after the pandemic wanes, he said.

In order to facilitate access to justice through technology, Heavican said, the judiciary began conducting onsite visits to county courthouses in 2021 to assess technology needs and create plans for enhancing or replacing existing technology.

“Likewise, the judicial branch wholeheartedly supports the expansion of high-speed internet broadband,” he said. “Without a strong broadband infrastructure, our rural court users are unable to access the resources we are working so hard to provide.”

Another challenge facing the courts is the retention of highly skilled employees, Heavican said. To achieve this objective, the judicial branch has begun a workload and salary assessment study and will be asking lawmakers for an upward adjustment in the courts’ spending limit, he said.

“I remind you again of the good work our court family is doing to keep the courts open statewide, to mitigate a speedy trial crisis, to defuse an eviction crisis and to make sure access to justice is available to all Nebraskans,” Heavican said.

One highlight of the past year was the work of the statewide restorative justice initiative, he said, which requires juvenile law violators to meet with the victims of their crimes. Youth who participated in the program had a recidivism rate of 11.3 percent compared to 19 percent for those who did not participate, he said, and work is underway to expand the program to more Nebraska youth.

Heavican said other problem-solving courts — such as the young adult, mental health and veterans treatment courts — have continued to find new and innovative ways to provide sentencing alternatives and help divert criminal offenders from the state’s prisons and jails.

“We owe the success of our courts to the good old-fashioned work ethic of judges, staff and practicing attorneys,” he said. “We also owe our positive accomplishments to the increased use of technology and the accompanying innovative initiatives of our court family.”

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