‘A Year of Testing… A New Way Forward’



‘A Year of Testing… A New Way Forward’

The coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism, ransomware attacks and disinformation campaigns challenged the nation’s state courts in 2020, but they remain “resolute, innovative and forward-looking,” Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht told the American Bar Association House of Delegates this week during its midyear meeting, which took place via remote video conferencing. You can watch the entire speech here.

Chief Justice Hecht, who also serves as president of the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and chair of NCSC’s Board of Directors, noted that only 14 cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the United States when he addressed the ABA delegates last year. Today the number of domestic cases exceeds 28 million.

The pandemic shut down most courthouses, he said, but state court leaders quickly adjusted and resumed services, including holding millions of remote hearings nationwide in 2020. Chief Justice Hecht credited NCSC for providing critical support and CCJ for creating the Pandemic Rapid Response Team, which continues to guide state courts’ response to the pandemic. He said this response had to happen because “In COVID-speak, justice is an essential service.”

“A far worse disease than COVID-19,” he said, “is the disease of racial prejudice.” The death of George Floyd triggered charges of racial unfairness that cannot be ignored, he said. Less than two months later, CCJ resolved “to continue and to intensify efforts to combat racial prejudice within the justice system, both explicit and implicit.” Chief Justice Hecht promised that the resolution “is not empty rhetoric or playing politics,” and that “state courts will take a hard, clear look at themselves.”

The pandemic, he said, also highlighted inequities in eviction cases, which threaten to overwhelm the courts and hurt tenants and landlords, and in debt-collection cases, which stretch courts’ resources. Judges and lawyers “famously resist change,” Chief Justice Hecht said, but they must consider changes to improve efficiency and fairness in these areas.

“If courts were retailers, we would work harder to keep customers,” he said. “The pandemic is forcing us to do that.”

He urged the ABA delegates to embrace virtual jury trials, which aren’t appropriate for all cases but “have gained wide acceptance. …We must be unafraid of learning new ways to do justice.”

In closing, he said, “State courts are rededicated, as never before, to providing equal justice under law for all. We ask your help as we move forward, with innovation, re-examination and renewal. We are grateful for the opportunities to partner with you in 2021 and beyond.”

His remarks to the ABA’s House of Delegates have been a tradition between the ABA and the Conference of Chief Justices since 2009. The effort was initiated as a means to share information and perspectives between the organized bar and the state courts. The ABA’s President, Patricia Lee Refo, also recently delivered remarks to CCJ’s virtual midyear conference.

Register for mental health webinar series: Help Not Handcuffs

Please participate in a webinar series – Help Not Handcuffs – that focuses on how to address the mental health crises with comprehensive community responses. The first in the series is Thursday, February 25 from 4 – 5 p.m. ET. Judge Steve Leifman, a member of NCSC’s National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Response to Mental Illness, is a panelist. The webinar series is sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). To register and to view the complete schedule of topics for this series, go to this link.

The series addresses the intersection of mental health and the justice system, past and present legislative efforts, several existing jail diversion models, and what to expect and strive for with future programs.