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June 29, 2020 National Conference of State Trial Judges

NCSTJ Chair's Column

By Hon. Heather A. Welch, Indianapolis, IN

My year as Chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges has gone by very quickly and will conclude with our virtual meeting at the end of July.  I want to thank Judge Guy Reece, as the Immediate Past Chair, for all his humble advice and for keeping me on the right track.  Our Conference is lucky to have Judge Linda Bell, who will become the Chair, and Judge Dave Connors, who will become the Chair-Elect.  The NCSTJs has had a successful year by focusing on Ethics and Civility with the newly created Honorable William D. Missouri Civility Award. We have included articles in the JD record on civility thanks to Judges Mary Vasaly and Christina Klineman.  Judges of our Conference volunteered for another successful Diversity Judicial Clerkship Program that took place at the Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.  Our Conference also completed our strategic plan and have been implementing that plan.

We did have one big surprise and that was the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).  We all were talking about it at this year’s ABA Midyear Meeting, but we had no idea how it would change our court operations.  Most state trial courts across the United States began operating remotely and conducting only essential hearings in March of 2020.  After we become accustomed to managing our dockets via remote technology, then we had to determine how do we safely resume in-person hearings, including jury trials.  While courts may have selected different dates to restart in-person hearings and jury trial, we have all struggled with what screening procedures should be required to enter the courts building.  Are temperatures taken, are screening questions asked by someone, are masks required, are you only permitted to enter the building if you have an appointment/hearing, and many other questions? 

However, the biggest challenge that state trial judges will face is how and when do we resume jury trials?  All Judges want jury trials to begin as soon as we can establish protocols which make the process a fair and safe one.  As we all know, a jury trial is an important Constitution right and Judges want litigants to have the opportunity to exercise this right without delay.  Thus, most Courts are working quickly to get jury trials ready to resume during the summer months. We shall see how COVID-19 shapes our courts and requires judges to make operational changes to continue to serve the public.  The ABA and Judicial Division has developed a list of materials and webinars to assist Judges in addressing the challenges COVID-19. Visit the ABA COVID-19 resource page and the JD COVID-19 resource page to learn more.

Since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, our country has seen peaceful protests and violence in our cities over the outrage of what occurred in Minneapolis.  People in the US and across the world have demanded equity for all.  The Courts across our country can and must do better to ensure we provide equal justice for all.  While the Judicial Division of the ABA has focused on implicit bias and diversity in our legal profession, it is now time for the NCSTJs and Judicial Division to once again be leaders.  How can we do this? We can and should continue to provide programs on the importance of implicit bias, to participate in the Judicial Division Diversity Clerkship Program, to develop a diversity clerkship program in your jurisdiction, and ensure equal access to the courts for all people.

Thank you all for the opportunity to serve the National Conference of State Trial Judges.

Hon. Heather A. Welch

Hon. Heather A. Welch

2019-2020 NCSTJ Chair