Your Nebraska Judicial Branch

Episode 10: Chief Justice Michael Heavican

March 08, 2021 Nebraska Judicial Branch Episode 10
Your Nebraska Judicial Branch
Episode 10: Chief Justice Michael Heavican
Chapters
Your Nebraska Judicial Branch
Episode 10: Chief Justice Michael Heavican
Mar 08, 2021 Episode 10
Nebraska Judicial Branch

Chief Justice Michael Heavican joins us to discuss issues of access to justice, and how courts and Judicial Branch services have remained operational during unprecedented times.

Show Notes Transcript

Chief Justice Michael Heavican joins us to discuss issues of access to justice, and how courts and Judicial Branch services have remained operational during unprecedented times.

Speaker 1:

Welcome. And thanks for listening. This is your Nebraska judicial break ,

Speaker 2:

Greetings and welcome back. Thank you again for joining us. I am Jeanne Cotter , your host. And today we are joined by Nebraska's chief justice, Mike havoc in chief. Thank you so much for coming in today.

Speaker 3:

Thank you for having me.

Speaker 2:

So a couple of weeks ago, chief, you were invited to the legislature to give the state of the judiciary address. Uh , you covered a multitude of topics, and I'm going to kind of go back over a couple of those because there were a couple of key points in there that, that really, I think caught my attention that people I am aware of have asked me about. So as we move through here , uh, you've been the chief since 2006, and it's always been a rewarding job, but it hasn't exactly, probably always been an easy job. 2020 and 2021 are probably no exception to that rule. In fact, it seems like with floods and pandemics and civil unrest, that more things keep getting added to the plate. Would that be an accurate statement? That

Speaker 4:

Would be an accurate statement. I told the rest of the court a couple of months back that I thought I had seen everything , uh, every kind of problem that could come up in the court system, but I really had never anticipated the kinds of issues that came up the detail and the length of the problems and issues that came up with the pandemic.

Speaker 2:

When we talk about access to justice, I know that you quoted in the state of the judiciary and in a letter that you posted on the website and issued in the midst of the civil unrest last summer, and you quoted their constitution and talked about quote, all court shall be open every person for injury done to him or her, his or her lands goods person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law and justice administered without denial or delay the last two years in particular. And as you said, you can't really anticipate it, but that speaks specifically to why the courts are essential and have to be open, right? Absolutely.

Speaker 4:

Our founding fathers and mothers, they didn't anticipate all of the problems that would come along. That accord system might have to face, or that a , a, a state might have to face, but they knew the importance of an independent judiciary. And they knew that the courts were absolutely essential to the operation of the government, to the operation of civilization. And that you simply couldn't shut the courts down cheap .

Speaker 2:

I'm going to get to the adaptability of the courts across the entire, well, not only the courts, but the branch wide services and programs and courts after bid . But I want to talk a little bit about a couple of initiatives that have come out of recent activities. For example, I know that you talked a little bit about this in the state of the judiciary, the racial equity initiative through our access to justice commission. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Speaker 4:

The access to justice initiative has been sort of building in Nebraska for a number of years and , uh, the court specifically set up the access to justice commission probably two years ago, three years ago, something like that. And one of the first things we did was to work on relationships with native Americans in the , the various native American tribal courts in the state. There are four of them. We brought our federal friends into the process so that we now have a consortium on justice that involves the federal court system, the state court system and the tribal court systems. And that all started back in 2018. Uh , when we had a conference up in , uh, south Sioux city , uh, we had great attendance from lots of folks, lots of state agencies, the tribal folks were all there. And , uh , we had a lot of federal involvement also, and that program has been very fruitful and successful. I think it kind of ran into the pandemic in that we were having hearings around the state about how the state court system and the tribal court system can work together better. And what folks felt about access to justice for native Americans in the state court system? We had a hearing in Omaha, we had a hearings in Northeast Nebraska, and we were about to take those hearings to Western Nebraska when kind of got shut down in the pandemic. Uh , but those will continue and the initiative will be broadened in the sense that we have done surveys of court users of folks who might not otherwise have as much access to our judicial system as we would like. So we've, we've done some surveys , uh, of folks using our court system. Next step is to have input from community leaders in regard to access to justice. And then again , uh, broaden those kinds of hearings out to everybody, the way that we have with the native American tribal state court system , uh, symposium.

Speaker 2:

So some focus groups and some, some, I think, broader listening sessions as the pandemic allows moving forward. If, if people are interested in those and maybe we don't even know the answer to that yet, but where would they find information about when the listening sessions will happen in their area and how they'll listen,

Speaker 4:

Those will always be on our website. Uh, so we don't have any particular , uh, sessions set up right at the moment, but we will, all of that information will be on our website as is virtually anything else you want to know about the court system, upcoming events , uh , rules and regulations. All of those kinds of things can be found on our website. Thank you for that.

Speaker 2:

In addition to the website, we also, and you talked about this in the state of the judiciary as well, that we've also kind of ventured or started to venture into some social media. So we'll make sure that that information gets tweeted out, put on our Facebook page and in our LinkedIn account, chief, the courts, as you have discussed, have been open throughout the pandemic throughout the floods, you name it, that doesn't happen by accident. Can you talk about just exactly how extensive and expansive that venture was and making sure that we were able to keep courts open and provide services to the people of Nebraska?

Speaker 4:

Yes. There are a lot of moving parts to that. Unfortunately, there were a number of folks who wanted to close courts in one way or another, some lawyers, some judges, some county commissioners and various other people, but we pretty consistently and persistently. And when I say we, the Supreme court insisted that all local counties and judicial districts work out plans so that everybody had access to the courts through the worst parts of the pandemic, through situations where courthouses were otherwise closed. And the emphasis was on this sort of concept that each individual county or each individual judicial district had to have their own plan. And they had to continue to update those plans because as we know, the virus didn't have a lot of respect for judicial boundaries or those guys of things. So what was good for Omaha was not necessarily good for Ogallala. Every part of the state was a little bit different , uh , through the entire process. So everybody had to adapt to their situation

Speaker 2:

Because the pandemic hasn't exactly loosened its grip entirely on the state or anywhere for that matter. We've also noticed a coming together, like you just said, what happens in Omaha is different than what happens in Ogallala, but we've also seen different comings together of pooling of community. I know we haven't exactly been able to host, for example, all of the jury trials that normally would have happened, but those that we have have come because of community partnerships. Would you talk about that just a little bit? Uh, yes.

Speaker 4:

Uh, jury trials are one of the most difficult issues that we had to face here in the court system in Nebraska. Uh, but really every state in the United States , uh , is facing the same kind of problem with jury trials or has faced it. And the federal courts have faced that problem too. You need to be able to assure people who are called as doers , that they are going to be safe during the trial and during the process of picking a jury , uh, and everything that goes with that. So courts have to make sure that , uh, social distancing is proper and attainable. They have to make sure that people wear masks when they need to. And that is in almost any situation where they're not speaking. And so that can get quite complex, but we found that communities across the state of Nebraska were helpful in providing large public spaces so that , uh, jurors could be selected and witnesses could be presented in a situation in a building, in a room. It was large enough so that all of those pandemic precautions could be taken and that, and so that jurors would feel safe when they came to do their jury duty and not just jurors, but also court employees and lawyers and everybody else involved in the process.

Speaker 2:

Technology has played a huge role in that. Has there been anything from a technology standpoint that has impressed, you has surprised you has maybe pointed to some trouble spots that we need to concentrate on as we continue to move forward and not really sure exactly how long the pandemic is going to persist. Technology

Speaker 4:

Has been everything to the court system during this pandemic crisis. If you will. We were in the process for example, of building up to a point where filing would be mandatory for attorneys in Nebraska. And , uh , we still haven't quite made it mandatory, but we are just about there, but the pandemic forced almost everybody to e-file their , what otherwise would be paperwork and would have to be mailed to the clerk's offices or brought to the clerk's offices personally. So we were a long way along with mandatory e-filing and that was a lifesaver as far as being able to have documents in the court system, without people having to actually go to the courthouse, likewise hearings were conducted by telephone or teleconference, zoom hearings, and WebEx hearings, and so forth. Even five years ago, we would have had difficulty trying to, trying to conduct court hearings without the kind of sophistication that you get from WebEx or zoom, for example. So, yeah, technology has, has been a savior

Speaker 2:

Chief. We've spent a lot of time talking about the courts and how technology aided and bringing the courts to the people instead of just people coming to the courts. I don't know that people completely understand yet exactly the wide ranging services that are provided within and by the judicial branch. We've for example, had Michelle Chafee from the office of public guardian in here, and we've had Kelly Riley from the office of dispute resolution and probation administrator, Deb minority in court administrator, Corey steel as guests. Can you just talk about the breadth and depth of the services provided by the judicial branch? Well, over

Speaker 4:

The last 10 years or so , uh, the legislature has asked the judicial branch to do a number of things that we didn't use to do. For example, one is the office of public guardian, and that is the office that provides guardianship and conservatorship services to wards, to people who can no longer make, for example, medical decisions for themselves or financial decisions for themselves. And so this is a service to all those folks, but it is also a service to judges into the court system because otherwise, oftentimes judges couldn't find anybody to be a guardian or a conservator for a person who needed that care. So the technology there has helped tremendously our very dedicated public guardians we're dealing with. For example, a lot of people who were in nursing homes or assisted living facilities that the public simply did not have access to in order to protect the residents of those facilities from the virus. So our public guardians utilize technology to communicate with those folks. Some of that was simply by telephone, but a lot of that also was by zoom or WebEx or some kind of video conferencing to take care of those folks, those awards

Speaker 2:

From a community corrections standpoint, we also have probation post release supervision, problem solving courts. And that certainly is something that just couldn't go on hold well, everybody went home and avoided the virus. Could you talk a little bit about just the role that the problem solving courts and the probation offices play every day in the judicial branch?

Speaker 4:

Sure , absolutely. As you said , uh, those kinds of functions simply simply do not go away. And our probation officers had to continue to supervise and monitor everybody who was on probation or was coming out of a incarceration setting, post release supervision. So that , uh, took all kinds of innovation , uh , by probation, around the state of Nebraska, our , our probation officers came up with ways to do drug testing that , uh , were less intrusive didn't , uh, involve taking urine samples or blood samples, that sort of thing. And for example, I think we use a lot more sweat patches and that sort of thing. So that protects both the people being supervised and , uh , probation officers. We also came up with ways to have virtual virtual meetings for drug abuse, alcohol abuse , um , mental health education, and mental health services and so forth so that people didn't have to come to a central meeting place that could be done virtually. As I said, we had great innovation by all of the folks involved in that process and they have carried on mightily and carried on well

Speaker 2:

Regularly anymore. People say, give me your elevator speech in closing chief, could you tell me in your elevator speech, what do you want people to know about the judicial branch?

Speaker 4:

I want people to know that the judicial branch did everything possible to come through this very trying period , uh, in a great, great way so that our folks out there in the front lines, our probation officers, our judges, those folks in the clerk's offices office of public guardian, everybody came forward and they put out their very best so that they are heroes everyday heroes , uh, just like the folks in our hospitals and our medical centers, just like our police officers and our fire persons who are everyday heroes, but our court family, all of those folks have been everyday heroes also. And we set up a program to honor a lot of those folks because of the really, really good work that they've done. Chief

Speaker 2:

Justice, Mike, Kevin , thank you so much. I think it's a pretty clear picture that equality before the law open access to justice is, and will remain an important part of the fabric of thank you again for joining us today. Thank you very much for having me. This has been another episode of your Nebraska judicial branch. Please remember to subscribe like and review us on your favorite podcast platform.