Rush’s State of the Judiciary, released as online video, focuses on pandemic response

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Chief Justice Loretta Rush released the annual State of the Judiciary address Wednesday as a video posted to the Indiana Supreme Court website.

While the COVID-19 pandemic ruled out the traditional January address to a joint session of the Indiana General Assembly, Rush’s roughly 21-minute address for 2021 takes the form of a glossy video production highlighting how the judiciary “adapted and innovated.”

Rush also turned over the State of the Judiciary to more than a dozen “frontline local judges” from around the state as well as court staff members, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders. They addressed topics including how courts stayed in session by embracing change, helping those in need, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, pretrial reform, judicial branch independence, racial equality and strategic planning.

“The pandemic has forced all of us to face challenges we never would have expected,” Rush said, “and while the pandemic brought our normal lives to a halt, the conflicts that our Hoosier courts resolve did not go on lockdown.”

Rush noted the 1.6 million pending cases that courts handled even as the pandemic changed how matters were handled as the legal profession transitioned in 2020 to remote proceedings.

“And yes, we had to say to say to each other and the lawyers, ‘I think you’re on mute.’”

“This month we’re returning to our majestic courtroom to hear cases, and we’re thrilled,” Rush said. “Our trial courts are revolutionizing operations. Courts are places where many people, sometimes hundreds, come together in person, and that did not always work. So we constructed new ways to resolve disputes with safety, efficiency and accessibility.

“We listened to what was needed in our local communities, and judges from across the state developed plans to help our court customers get their disputes resolved,” Rush said.

And while 2020 presented challenges, several judges saw causes for celebration even in remote weddings and adoptions. And in some cases, remote proceedings proved a great convenience.

“We found that we have greater participation by parents and litigants in their proceedings because they no longer have to arrange for childcare; for those that don’t have their own vehicle — hire someone to drive them to court,” Lake Superior Judge Tom Stefaniak said. “Now wherever they’re at, off their mobile phone, what used to take half or three-quarters of a day for them, takes about 10 minutes or whatever the length of the hearing is.”

Rush, who last September confirmed that she quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19, didn’t mention her diagnosis in the address, but she noted Shelby Superior Judge David Riggins was an “early adopter” as the first trial court judge in the state to contract the coronavirus.

Riggins, who operates what he refers to as a high-volume court, took a strong commitment to socially distance the court and ensure it was sanitized.

“I finally get to be a Ghostbuster for real,” he said. “We’ve got this huge thing that we can disinfect the entire courtroom with. I’ll strap that puppy on, and we’ll disinfect the entire courtroom in just honestly a few seconds; it makes it a lot easier. We go through by hand and disinfect common-touch surfaces at least twice a day: at night when we’re done and at noon.”

“There are better times ahead, and rest assured, your Indiana judiciary is strong and ever poised to meet the challenges of the future,” Rush concluded.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

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