State of the Judiciary address focuses on protecting the vulnerable

LINCOLN – Nebraska’s courts helped children last year, but could improve court access by breaking language barriers using technology, said Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican during his State of the Judiciary speech Thursday.Heavican told lawmakers in the Capitol’s legislative chamber a pilot project in Omaha, North Platte and Scottsbluff to keep children from being jailed while being rehabilitated had higher results than the statewide average. During the first six months of the project, 80 percent completed probation successfully.Another youth-focused initiative, Through the Eyes of the Child, got $1 million in grants to house former foster children as they transition to adulthood.“The judicial branch touches all Nebraskans, including the most vulnerable of our citizens,” Heavican said, “children, the elderly, the poor and the unfortunate victims of crime and abuse.”The Nebraska Supreme Court presented its two-year strategic plan that focused on children and vulnerable adults, access to courts, community safety and the judicial branch's accountability to the public.Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said goal one is children. This is the “year of the child” in the juvenile justice system, he said. Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he’s proposing a bill next week that would change the system.“So all great stuff,” he said. “I’m a big fan of the Chief Justice.”Heavican said his speech covered only a few of the good things happening in Nebraska.“Our court provides access to justice for all of our citizens,” he said, but added later that court access could be improved.Nebraskans need to be heard and lawyers, judges and jury need to “understand the testimony and arguments of non-English speakers so that justice can be served.”The Language Access Plan, which is researching Nebraska’s immigrant and refugee language needs, should be completed in 2013, he said. Spanish interpreters are available across the state and can call in to court hearings or use videoconferencing. Conferencing saved the state almost $100,000 in travel and mileage since 2010, he said.When witnesses are as far away as the U.S. coasts, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said, a witness should be able to appear by electronic conferencing, with consent of the parties involved.A county court judge was interested in making sure this common practice was placed into law, so Lathrop introduced Legislative Bill 103 this session.It would expand the authority of judges to use videoconferencing in their courtrooms. Lathrop said that if someone in Valentine needed an interpreter in the courtroom, the ability to use videoconferencing would help everyone.Every year Lathrop has been in the Legislature, he said the court has used more technology. Electronic filings speed up processing, and as an attorney, he can accesses court files from his office and that saves the courts money, he said.“Judges are facing a pinch and they have been very patient when we went through the recession.” A challenge for the year will be adding new judges and he said Douglas County Court and the District Court probably each need one more judge, but they still need to be patient.Lathrop said it was helpful to hear Heavican speak because there’s a level of cooperation between the judiciary and the Legislature.Heavican ended his speech saying the same thing.“We’re proud of the accomplishments our programs have achieved in addressing the needs of all of these Nebraska citizens and appreciate the support and Legislature has given the judiciary.”