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April 05, 2021 National Conference of State Trial Judges

New Judge in COVID

By Hon. Ryan K. Gardner, Indianapolis, IN

I had been serving as a Magistrate in Juvenile Court for about a year. My schedule was set, I was learning new things, and I was optimistic about the future. As quickly as my first year on the bench had gone by, my rhythm was suddenly thrown off course. COVID-19 swept through our country and the world turned upside down. Businesses were closed and livelihoods were threatened.  The world’s most trusted systems were shaken. Most unfortunately, precious lives, both young and old, were lost. Even today, the world is still reeling from this pandemic and all it has cost us. Out of an abundance of caution, many of us have not been able to see, in person, or embrace our loved ones and closest friends.

Despite all this, the courts, not just in Indiana, but all over this nation, have taken COVID-19’s best punches, dusted ourselves off, and risen to the occasion.  With the wisdom and guidance of our Supreme Court and Executive Committee, we have quickly and efficiently responded to find solutions to the problems that this public health crisis has caused.  With the health and safety of not only our colleagues in mind, but also that of the parties, families, and stakeholders that come before us, we have been able to ensure virtual access to the courts. We have worked with virtual platforms to ensure functionality which allows private attorney-client communication during hearings.  When families have not had access to a computer or cell phone, we have made private rooms available at the court, where masks are provided, and rooms are sanitized between hearings. When our youth have been detained, we have been able to restructure our schedules so that certain days are dedicated to in-person speedy trials in our largest courtrooms to ensure that social distancing is possible. With public safety at the forefront, our criminal and civil courts have implemented a plan to resume jury trials.   

In the midst of great tribulation, I have been so proud of the patience, thoughtfulness, and resolve of the courts. There is an old saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  I believe that it is equally true that what does not kill us makes us smarter. COVID-19 has not destroyed our ability to serve, or to “do justice.” It has shown us that we need to be flexible, and open to change at a moment’s notice. It has shown us all the options available to us when a public health crisis presents itself.  It has shown us how to accept the circumstances before us, roll with the punches, work with our stakeholders, and utilize alternatives to do our jobs efficiently and effectively. It has reminded us of the need to couple our responsibility to manage our caseloads with compassion. COVID-19 backed us into a corner, but we did not shrink. Rather, the pressure forced us to think outside of the box and learn to navigate unfamiliar territory.

As of the writing of this article, I am serving in my second month as a judge appointed to the Marion Superior Court. My colleagues and I are bringing all that we have learned over the past year to the implementation of, and setting policy for, the Family Division; the first of its kind in Marion County. Many of our decisions which were born out of necessity will likely continue in the future for purposes of judicial economy and as alternative means of providing access to the courts for all the families that we serve. Collaboration and communication have been key in this process, as it has been from the beginning of the pandemic for courts all over the country. Imagine that.  A system whose members are able to put aside any differences based on the hot-button issues of the day, who are able to work together to sustain and strengthen the system so that it performs to the benefit of all who come before it, and the community at-large. The pandemic has brought darkness into our lives, and to the lives of those in the communities that we serve. I thank God that it has not had the capacity to dim the lights in our hearts and minds.  While we are not out of the woods yet, this global crisis has equipped our courts with a few more weapons in our respective arsenals to continue to serve our communities. If it is true that adversity reveals our character, then I simply cannot help but to remain optimistic about the future.