2018 State of the Judiciary – Wyoming Chief Justice E. James Burke


– Members of the
64th Legislature,
distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I
now present the Honorable E. James Burke, Chief Justice
of the Wyoming Supreme Court. (applause) – Mr. President, Mr. Speaker,
Governor and Mrs. Mead, members of the 64th
Wyoming Legislature, elected officials,
members of the Judiciary, guests and citizens of
the state of Wyoming, it is an honor to speak to you on behalf of the
dedicated men and women who serve in the Judicial branch
of our state’s government. Thank you President
Bebout, Speaker Harshman, for the opportunity to do so. Couple days ago, Governor Mead suggested that we
switch speeches, that I take on his speech and
that he take on my speech. I’d listened to some of
them over the years and debated the pros and
cons of that offer and I wish I had taken
that offer, Governor. That was a stirring
wonderful speech and we are lucky in this state for, that you have been in
office for this time. And I will tell
you, I just returned from the conference
of Chief Justices and they still are talking
about your presentation in Jackson on the importance
of a strong judiciary and I told them that
this was going to be your last State of
the State presentation to which more than one
renewed their offer that you move from
Wyoming to their state and run for Governor there. So again, thank you very much. (applause) I take my cue today
for my remarks from the finals competition
of the We the People Program held in Laramie a few weeks ago. Most of you are familiar
with the program and many of you have served
as judges for the competition. It is a high school
civics program. Students from around the state represent their schools
in competition designed to demonstrate their
understanding of
our constitution. The winning team
represents Wyoming during the National
competition in Washington DC. The official name of the
program is We the People, The Citizen and
the Constitution, and the program strives
to prepare each student to become knowledgeable
and engaged citizens. If you have had the opportunity to see these students in action, you have no doubt that
that goal will be achieved. Warren Buffett once noted, “Someone is sitting
in the shade today “because someone planted
a tree a long time ago.” Since 1987, approximately
6,000 Wyoming students have participated in the
competitive hearings. We have no doubt that the
investment made yesterday in those students will
pay significant dividends for those students
and our communities
in the years to come. Matt Strannigan
has been heading up the program for over 20 years. He and all who have made
that program possible deserve our thanks and
our congratulations. (applause) In preparing for the contest, students gain a
clearer understanding of the ideals and principles
that serve as the foundation for the constitution and
our system of government. I’d like to focus on
one of those ideals. It’s embodied in the first
sentence of our constitution. “We the People of
the United States, “in order to form a more perfect
union, establish justice.” It ends our Pledge
of Allegiance, “With liberty and
justice for all.” Justice for all. That’s the touchstone, isn’t it? When we provide an update on
the State of the Judiciary, that should be our measuring
stick, shouldn’t it? Are we making progress? Are we moving closer
to that ultimate goal? I’m pleased to say
that with your help, continued support from
the Executive branch, investment by our
communities and our citizens, and the unwavering commitment of the men and women
in our Judicial branch, we continue to progress. Because we are all
pulling together towards that common goal,
I can confidently report that the state of our
Judiciary is strong. We’re making progress
on a number of fronts. The Sweetwater
County Justice Center will be opening this spring. The building will house
the Circuit Courts, previously split between
Rock Springs and Green River, the Public Defenders Office
and the County Attorney. The efficiencies from
the combination of
courts are immense. According to one judge, “The days of shuttling
people around are over. “It’s now one-stop shopping.” The move will also free up
much needed additional space for the District Courts
in Sweetwater County. In the words of Judge Prokos, “The new facility
is a game-changer “for the justice system
in Sweetwater County.” In 2016, the
Legislature authorized a fourth District Judge
in Laramie County. In May of last year, Laramie
County voters approved funding for courthouse
renovations to provide much needed facilities for
an additional courtroom, offices for a fourth
judge and staff, as well as upgrades to
existing facilities. Construction is expected
to commence in the spring. For the judges in
Laramie County, help cannot come soon enough. Workload studies show a need
for 4.58 District Judges. There are only three. The three District
Judges have been coping with that
demand for years. It takes a toll on the
judges and their staffs and on the quality of
justice in Laramie County. Delays are inevitable,
lives are put on hold, business transactions
remain in limbo, public trust and confidence in our justice
system diminishes. We would urge your support
of legislation this year to fund that judicial position. We continue to move forward
on the technology front. We’ve established technology
standards for audio and video capability in our
courtrooms and jury rooms fortified by additional revenues
resulting from an increase to the Court Automation Fund
that you approved last session. We’ve embarked on
an upgrade of our video conferencing equipment
and software across the state allowing courts to
more efficiently manage their cases in courtrooms without requiring time-consuming
and often costly travel by parties, attorneys,
and witnesses. In the past year, our
IT staff has replaced every video conferencing
unit in the judicial branch. That equipment is
already being put to good use in our courtrooms. According to one court
reporter discussing a medical malpractice trial,
“It’s just so much better. “It makes it much
easier for the jury “to understand the
complicated expert testimony.” We’ve installed new audio
systems in 13 courtrooms enhancing the ability of
all interested parties to hear and understand the day-to-day
functions of the court. We have taken our first steps towards migration to the cloud. That will provide greater
consistency in service to courts throughout the
state and a more efficient and reliable disaster
recovery process. We continue to focus
upon the implementation of software application systems to enhance case management and
management of court records. The new uniform case
management system will provide the foundation for electronic
filing in our courts. We intend to begin piloting
that system later this year. We are in the pilot phase of
a new jury management system that will improve our
jury management process and provide increased
flexibility for communication between courts and
potential jurors. Under the new system,
court-juror contact
will be available via email, text
messaging, or phone calls. One of the goals, of course,
is to lessen the burden on our citizens as they fulfill
their civic responsibility when called for jury duty. A system is currently
being piloted in four courts in the state
and I received an email on Sunday, I believe,
indicating that already six perspective jurors have
taken advantage of that system and we think that
is really gonna be a boon for that
cumbersome process. In some, we’ve made
significant process. Our IT branch under Julie Goyen deserves special recognition. They’re moving forward
on a lot of fronts. We’re very proud of what they
have accomplished this year. In this budget session,
we were seeking additional spending authority
to build on the good work that has already
been accomplished. I should clarify, just
in case you’re concerned, that the additional
spending authority is coming from a special revenue
account, not the General Fund. (applause) As a heads up, I should mention
that remote public access to court records will be a
focus in the upcoming year. As these projects move
forward, we expect that more attention will
be paid to that issue. Some may raise
questions concerning the confidentiality
of some court records. You may be forced to
address that issue in future legislative sessions. For our part, we are proceeding
with the understanding that access is the
preferred path. If it has not been legislatively
designated as confidential, access will be permitted. Obviously, our
judges will retain the discretionary authority
to require confidentiality in specific circumstances. We’ve also made progress
in several areas that I will touch on briefly. Equal Justice Wyoming continues
to expand its services. I’ve emphasized the
importance in contributions of Equal Justice Wyoming
in past visits with you. One new program
warrants mention. In March 2016, Equal
Justice launched the Volunteer Reference Attorney
pilot program in Cheyenne, placing pro bono attorneys in
the Laramie County courthouse to assist self-represented
litigants. The attorneys provide
legal information, explain court procedures, and assist litigants
completing court forms. The program quickly became a
success and has now expanded to Casper, Laramie,
Sheridan, and Rawlins. We anticipate future growth and thank all of the
volunteer attorneys. Most of the counties
that were eligible for courthouse security funding
have applied for those funds and have put them to good use. A recent security assessment
for seven additional counties was completed in the past year and as expected, it shows
a need in those counties. We hope that we can continue
the momentum from past sessions and that you will
provide assistance for addressing those needs. Our Judicial Learning Center
has proven to be a success. We are seeing more visitors
to the court than ever before. Teachers have begun
using the Learning Center as a platform to tackle more sophisticated
lessons during visits. We continue to partner
with the education system and are hosting a
lesson plans contest that ends April ninth. Around the state, our
efforts at public education and judicial outreach
also continue. Again, we believe that
those efforts are important to improving public
trust and confidence in our system of justice. We believe we have
a good story to tell and we need to do all we can
to make people, have people understand how our system works. We’ve beefed up our judicial
orientation and education. A renewed focus in this area
will allow our new judges to be better prepared
from the outset. And speaking of new judges,
during this past year, District Judges Wade
Waldrip, John Brooks, and Steven Cranfill, along
with Circuit Judge Jane Eakin, announced their
retirements after long and distinguished
careers on the bench. They will be missed. Judge Dawnessa Snyder
replaced Judge Waldrip in the Second Judicial
District in Rawlins. Judge Scott Peasley
replaced Judge Brooks. Judge Bill Simpson
replaced Judge Cranfill. And Susan Stipe will
replace Judge Eakin in the Second Judicial District
in Rawlins later this month. All are highly qualified
and we are pleased to welcome them as colleagues. Closer to home, Justice William
Hill will also be retiring. He has been a mainstay of this
court for nearly 20 years, including four years
as Chief Justice. He’s authored
hundreds of opinions, listened to thousands
of oral arguments, and throughout has
served this court, the judicial branch, and
the citizens of this state with dedication and distinction. We will miss him. Please recognize Justice Hill.
(applause) Lynne Boomgaarden has been
selected to fill that vacancy. Lynne comes to this court with excellent
academic credentials, a broad range of
legal experience, and a solid record
of civic engagement. She will be an excellent
Supreme Court Justice and we look forward to
welcoming her as a colleague. Justice Hill’s final day on
the court will be this Friday and Lynne will take office
on the following Tuesday, the next business day. This, again, is a testament to
our merit selection process. Vacancies do not
remain unfilled. On a more somber note, we
must acknowledge the passing of former District Court Judges
Bob Ranck and Betty Kail. Judge Ranck was the first district court judge
for Teton County. He served the citizens of
the Ninth Judicial District in Jackson for over 12 years
before his retirement in 1989. Judge Kail was the first woman to serve as a county court judge and a district court
judge in her state. She was appointed to
the bench in 1981. After two years at
the county level, Judge Kail was appointed
a district judge for the Ninth Judicial
District in Lander where she served until
her retirement in 1994. We will be honoring
Judge Kail later today when we unveil her photograph
during our dedication of the Equality Wall
at the Supreme Court. (applause) And Governor,
hearing your remarks during your state of the speech, if you don’t have anything
else on your calendar, perhaps you could come over
also and share a few words about the importance of
women in this equality stand. We are proud that we’ve been
able to make the progress in these times of
economic challenge. As I look back, there
are two takeaways. First, very little of
that progress would
have been possible if you had not seen
fit to continue to invest in our
branch of government. You are essential partners in the quest for
justice in this state. Second, talk of progress
now, to some extent, underscores our lack of
progress in the past. For example, we now talk about audio improvements
in our courtrooms but those improvements happened
only and after an assessment that revealed totally
inadequate sound systems in many courtrooms
throughout the state. On a 10-point scale, many were
in the one to two category. The comment from one of our
district judges bears repeating. “Abraham Lincoln would have been “perfectly at home
in my courtroom.” How did that happen? There are two basic
reasons, I believe. First, responsibility was murky. It was unclear whether it was a state or county
responsibility. Second, there were no standards,
no requirements to satisfy. We have now adopted standards
and taken responsibility. Progress is being
made in that area but we must remain
vigilant in all areas. We must not be comfortable
with the status quo. We cannot afford
to move backwards. The state-county responsibility
issue is a difficult one. There is proposed
legislation that delineates responsibility for
courtroom technology and we would urge your
support of that legislation so that we can continue
to move forward in that important area. But there are other areas that appear to be more
difficult to resolve. Court security is one. As the assessments that we
have obtained in recent years have revealed, there are
serious security concerns in many of our courthouses. All who use those facilities
are potentially at risk. Progress is not occurring
at a satisfactory pace. No one questions the need
for the improvements. There are, however,
unresolved issues concerning responsibility, funding, and
appropriate security standards. We would suggest that this
issue as an interim topic so that all stakeholders
can be brought together to work towards a solution. There are a host
of other challenges but time does not permit
any detailed discussion. I would like to briefly address
the public defender issue. In November, I received a letter from Diane Lozano, our
State Public Defender. The letter began, “Dear
Chief Justice Burke, “I am writing to let you
know that the public defender “case loads are at
crisis levels, both
trial and appellate.” The letter went on to detail a situation that
is very concerning. It is one that goes
right to the heart of our constitutional guarantees and constitutional
responsibilities. If there is not a solution,
the fallout will be severe for the judiciary and its
ability to manage the docket, for those accused of crimes
who are presumed innocent and may be unable to obtain
legal representation, and for our citizens whose
safety may be jeopardized if criminal prosecutions
are derailed. This is not a situation
that can be ignored. Our public defenders
are a crucial component of our justice system. To the extent that you
feel that you would benefit from our input, just let us
know, our judges are available. This will be my final
State of the Judiciary. It has been an
indescribable honor to have served as Chief Justice. During that time, I have come
to have a greater appreciation for the many moving
parts that are in play and must be coordinated for an effective judicial
branch of government. There must be buy-in from so
many to effectuate progress. I’ve also come to realize that we are very
fortunate in this state. We can talk, we
can work together. There is, I believe, a
commitment to a common goal of a justice system that works for
the citizens of this state. Governor, again, I
want to thank you for the respect and support
you have provided the judiciary throughout your
tenure as Governor. As I always said
many times before, it is one thing for
judges to talk about the importance of an
effective judicial branch. It is quite another
for the leader of the executive
branch to do the same. I believe that your
support makes a difference. It builds public
trust and confidence in the judiciary of our state
and ultimately I believe that positively impacts
public perception of our state
government as a whole. To the members of the
judiciary, I cannot tell you how much I admire you and the
important work that you do. As I’ve said many
times last year, our circuit judges are the
unsung heroes of our branch. We continue to ask more and
they continue to deliver. As we all know,
our district judges are our general
jurisdiction judges. They are the backbone
of our judiciary. We place tremendous
responsibilities
on their shoulders and time and again
on a daily basis, they have demonstrated that
they are up to the challenge. We owe them a great deal. To my colleagues on the Supreme
Court, Justices Hill, Fox, Kautz, and Davis, it has been
an honor to serve with you. All our leaders, all have taken
on extra responsibilities. Much of what has
been accomplished is attributable
to their efforts. Justice Davis will be
our next Chief Justice. He will be wonderful. He will continue
to move us forward. And finally, our judicial
branch employees. This is the most difficult
part of the speech for me. Anything that I say
would be inadequate. It’s one thing to
obtain funding, it’s quite another to
implement new programs. You’re the reason that we
have accomplished so much. Personally, I find
the dedication of our judicial branch employees
to be inspirational. They are the best. They are the best.
(applause) In closing, I would like to
read a passage from a book. I think it captures the point
I’ve been trying to make. The author of the book
is Daniel James Brown. The title is “The
Boys in the Boat”. It’s a true story of
nine University of
Washington students who rowed crew during the
Depression in the 1930s and their epic quest
for the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics
in Hitler’s Berlin. It’s an ensemble piece but the
main character is Joe Rantz, one of the boys in the boat. The author interviewed Joe shortly before his
death at the age of 93. And the author writes this, “It was when he tried
to talk about the boat “that his words began to falter “and tears welled
up in his eyes. “Finally, watching Joe struggle
for composure over and over, “I realized that the
boat was something more “than just the
shell or its crew. “To Joe, it encompassed
but transcended both. “It was something mysterious
and almost beyond definition. “It was a shared
experience, a singular thing “that had unfolded in a golden
sliver of time long gone, “when nine good-hearted
young men strove together, “pulled together as one, “gave everything they
had for one another, “bound together forever by
pride and respect and love. “Joe was crying,
at least in part, “for the loss of
that vanished moment “but much more, I think,
for the sheer beauty of it.” I wondered about including
that last sentence of the quote until I realized that
the moment for Joe Rantz was not just crossing
the finish line. It was the entire endeavor. For Justice Hill, the
moment has lasted 20 years. During that time, he
has made important and lasting contributions
to our system of justice. For the students I
mentioned at the beginning, their moment is yet to come. Our system is where it is at
today because others before us, in their moment,
understood the importance of a properly functioning
judicial system to our way of life. We are reaping the benefits of the investments
they made long ago. Our moment is now. We are all in this together. We must continue to move forward to preserve and build
on their efforts. It’s an honor to be part of
that journey with all of you. Thank you again
for the opportunity to visit with you this morning
and for all that you do for the judicial branch
in the state of Wyoming. We wish you well in this
legislative session. Good luck and Godspeed. (applause)

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