The exterior of the Nebraska State Capitol building on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.
Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican gave the State of the Judiciary Address on Jan 21. Photo by Camryn Preston, Nebraska News Service.

LINCOLN — Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican emphasized the continued momentum of Nebraska’s judicial branch to transition to virtual hearings and adapt to the pandemic in his annual State of the Judiciary on Friday.

In his 2021 address, Heavican opened with Article I, Section 13 of the Nebraska Constitution, which states that “all courts shall be open,” and that goal remained through the year.

“As I stated then, this means that our courts must remain open, even when much of the rest of society is not,” Heavican said. “There are no exceptions — even for a pandemic — to Nebraska’s Constitutional requirement of open courts.”

Heavican said it’s critical the courts remain opening and functioning as normally as possible.

“Crime does not stop, nor does child abuse, spouse abuse, fraud, divorce and many of the other social and commercial issues that are only resolved in the courts,” he said. “This year I report to you that our courts have not only remained open but have adapted to the realities of the pandemic.”

The court’s successes in 2021 were owed to the “good old-fashioned work ethic” of judges, staff and attorneys but also technology, which accelerated the courts’ move to ongoing virtual hearings.

National and local surveys have shown people want video hearings to continue, even after the pandemic, according to Heavican. This is because they have been more efficient for attorneys and their clients and have helped eliminate concerns for some with showing up to court, like having to find childcare or take time off work.

“Hence, we have challenged the presiding judges in each of our judicial districts to use remote technology when possible and to update court rules in an effort to bring more uniformity and clarity to modified court operations,” Heavican said.

As of Jan. 1, the Nebraska Supreme Court fully instituted an E-filing system in all cases at all levels, saving many court documents from printing, filing, copying and mailing.

“Thanks to technology, those acts are now redundant and obsolete,” Heavican said.

Like much of the rest of the country, the courts are also facing staff shortages statewide.

All court and probation officers have new hiring and retention bonuses, and the retention of highly skilled and competent employees — with fair and comparable pay — remain priorities for the branch, Heavican said.

As a result, Heavican said the courts will ask the Legislature for an increase to its personnel spending limit.

“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,” he said.

The juvenile probation reentry unit and other programs have kept the youth recidivism rate for the second year at the all-time low of 19%, while youth in the state’s restorative justice initiative have a lower recidivism rate at 11.3%.

This initiative require youth who have violated the law to meet with the victims of their crimes.

The court’s Office of Dispute Resolution is working with mediation centers across Nebraska to expand the number of restorative justice programs available. The office is also partnering with the University of Nebraska Omaha and University of Nebraska-Lincoln for further program evaluation and research, which will be completed with support of a three-year, $1 million grant.

Nebraska’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which involves various elected and community leaders in the pursuit of many goals, had its 10th anniversary in 2021. Such goals include decreasing youth unnecessarily or inappropriately detained, redirecting public funds toward more effective strategies aimed at youth, reducing disproportionate minority confinement and contact with the juvenile justice system and improving the system overall.

The initiative began in Douglas County in 2011 and has since expanded to Sarpy, Otoe, Lancaster and Hall Counties, with the addition of Hall in 2021. JDAI has reduced statewide juvenile detention by more than 50%, according to Heavican.

On average, more than 80% of those involved with the criminal justice system have substance abuse or mental health issues, or both, Heavican said.

In 2021, the state courts emphasized improving those treatment services through upgraded training and technical assistance for probation field officers across Nebraska. Through a quality assurance program, Heavican said behavioral health services will become more effective and further contribute to reduced recidivism; the recidivism rate for adults under supervision is 18%.

These alternatives are also more cost-efficient for taxpayers, with adult supervision costing $2,000 per person per year, which includes the cost of treatment, and intensive supervision of high-risk probationers costing just over $4,000 per person per year. Problem-solving courts, which offer more supervision, cost about $4,500 per person per year.

“These figures compare dramatically and favorably to the cost of incarceration, which is approximately $41,000 per person per year,” Heavican said.

Case back-logs for judges are also minimal, which is supported by case management statistics, according to Heavican. 

The Nebraska Supreme Court recognized many “everyday heroes” in 2021, Heavican said. These were court staff and probation officers who went “the extra mile to make sure Nebraskans have access to justice” and were pivotal to the court’s successes.

“Keeping the courts open and accessible is an ongoing challenge, but when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” Heavican said.

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.