Nebraska Courts Show Leadership Amid Crisis

Richard Shugrue
Richard Shugrue
The Daily Record

While some political leaders in Nebraska have waffled about handling COVID-19, our judges have made no bones about being tough and clear that this pandemic is no joke and citizens having business in the courts will abide by rules to keep them safe.

With numbers of both positive tests and deaths spiking at alarming rate, some 37 states –including North Dakota and Iowa- – had issued mask mandates as of early December, but Nebraska’s Gov. Pete Ricketts has been a mandatory mask resistor, going so far as declaring such orders are “not appropriate” and they “create resistance.”

Not so for the Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican and the presiding judges of courts, including Douglas County District Court’s Horatio Wheelock, the Douglas County Separate Juvenile Court’s Peg Stevens and the Douglas County Court’s Sheryl Lohaus.

The Nebraska court leaders have been on top of this crisis since the earliest days of the calamity. On March 12, Heavican issued the first directive involving precautions required of all participants in judicial matter, alerting the public that tougher, more comprehensive measures would result as science dictated.

The Daily Record noted the excellent job the judiciary was doing in balancing the rights of litigants and the public, on the one hand, and the need for safety in the time of calamity

At the same time state courts were taking action, Chief Judge John Gerrard of the United States District Court for Nebraska was doing the same for the federal judiciary in Nebraska.

Within a month, a new, expanded order was issued by Heavican, sensitive to the need for keeping the courts open. Follow-up directives in April addressed the swearing-in of new attorneys and filing documents in proceedings. Early in May, the Douglas County Courthouse – the state’s largest – made it clear that COVID-19 guidelines were being followed.

In June, a Nebraska Supreme Court order was issued involving mitigation measures in the courts, such as masks, social distancing and hand sanitizing.

A Nov. 3 order called upon all courts to develop and publish plans to deal appropriately with the control of the pandemic in their jurisdictions.

All the orders of every court in Nebraska are posted on the Supreme Court’s website for easy access by citizens throughout the state and for comparison of the jurisdictions.

The courts are aware of the requirements of the constitutions, both state and federal, even in the time of a calamity. Thus, the orders take into consideration the right of the press to cover matters, the right of defendants in criminal cases to confront witnesses against them, the right to a speedy trial, for example.

It is coincidental the 50-year-old bar-press guidelines were re-issued as “The Nebraska Court Coverage Guidelines for Judges, Attorneys and Journalists.”

The time of an alarming crisis requires that everybody put up with some inconvenience. To those whining about their “right” to be mask-free, or to gather cheek by jowl in large crowds, the answer is “get over it.” Our courts have led the way in coming to grips with COVID-19. They deserve everyone’s gratitude.

Richard Shugrue is a professor emeritus at the Creighton University School of Law and a columnist for The Daily Record.


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