Chief justice focuses on pandemic response, access to justice

The head of Nebraska’s judicial branch reviewed the court system’s efforts to provide “uninterrupted access to justice” during the coronavirus pandemic in his State of the Judiciary address Jan. 21.

As his fellow justices watched from outside the legislative chamber, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican told lawmakers that the judicial branch’s guiding principle over the past year has been the constitutional requirement that courts remain open.

“There is no exception — for a pandemic or otherwise — to Nebraska’s Constitution’s requirement of open courts,” he said. “After all, crime does not stop during a pandemic, nor does child abuse, spouse abuse, fraud, or the myriad of other social issues that depend on our courts for resolution.”

More than half of judicial branch workers were quarantined for at least two weeks over the past year, Heavican said, but a 2019 pandemic planning session with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the court system’s investment in technology over the past decade helped it adapt quickly to COVID-19 and keep courts safely open.

“From Harrison to Falls City, and from Benkelman to Blair, justice is being administered without denial,” he said.

Technology allowed the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals to hold online oral arguments and new probation officers to take their oaths of office remotely, Heavican said. Court interpreters adapted to the pandemic by offering their services by telephone or video.

He said many of the state’s courthouses and courtrooms are too small to provide for adequate social distancing during jury selection and witness presentations, so several schools and organizations let the courts use their large public spaces to hold jury trials.

Heavican thanked the Nebraskans who, over the past year, reported for jury duty, a service that he said requires sacrifice even in normal times.

“In Nebraska, almost no one refused to serve,” he said. “Farmers and factory workers, doctors and ditchdiggers, baby boomers and millennials all showed up, proud and anxious to perform their duty.”

Heavican said the courts were able to transition quickly to distance operations because they already had begun to implement new technology and programming, including an online court payment system and an online education system. In 2020, attorneys electronically filed more than 1 million pleadings, more than in any previous year, he said.

The judicial branch also is working to identify “equal access deficiencies” in the state’s court system after incidents of racial injustice led to civil unrest last summer, Heavican said.

He said a new racial equity initiative, which began with a survey of court users last November, will help the judicial branch identify barriers that Nebraska’s marginalized populations face in the court system. Focus group sessions with community leaders and larger public listening sessions will follow when they can be held without jeopardizing participants’ health, Heavican said.

“No institution in this state plays a more pivotal role in ensuring equal access to justice than Nebraska’s courts,” he said. “There is no place in our court system for racial discrimination or inequality.”

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