The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 27, 2022 1:00 am

Full court press

Pandemic necessities prompt service innovations

Andrea R. Trevino

Being chief judge of the Allen Superior Court is usually an administrative task: running meetings, signing budgets, handling employee issues and otherwise tending to the details of running a large organization.

When I became chief judge, I was the newest judge on the court, appointed to the bench barely 18 months earlier. I embraced the opportunity as one where I would be able to both learn and have a positive impact.

It was January of 2020. Little did I (or anyone else) know a pandemic was about to come knocking on our door.

Two years later, my time as chief judge has come to an end, and the Allen County courts look much different than when my term began. Change came quickly, sometimes with barely any warning, but the courts evolved and found ways to keep serving our community. Even during the worst days of the COVID-19 crisis, Allen Superior Court never closed its doors.

Until March of 2020, court proceedings were almost exclusively a face-to-face transaction. Citizens came to the courts by the hundreds every week to take part in trials, serve jury duty, pay speeding tickets, get wedding licenses and all manner of other business. So how do the wheels of justice keep turning when being face to face is impossible or even dangerous?

In Allen County, we embraced the idea of remote appearances like never before. Overnight, our judges began holding proceedings via video and phone. Fortunately, the use of remote appearance technology was something we were already familiar with, our Criminal Division having adopted its use for initial appearances in May 2016.

Judges often held these remote hearings while their staffs were operating remotely as well. With just a few days' warning before the governor's stay-at-home order went into effect in March 2020, we deployed technology on a scale we never before imagined, permitting employees to do their jobs from home – keeping the courts open and functioning effectively.

To the public who still had to come to court in person, we knew only one question mattered: “Am I safe at the Courthouse?” The answer was always “Yes” because of steps we took immediately.

To this day, our jury areas and public spaces are socially distanced. At a time when they were scarce, we found and procured almost 100,000 masks so visitors to court facilities could have them free of charge while they were being mandated by the governor's order.

Some of the steps we have taken were out of pure necessity. From those, we have found many better ways to do business that will remain after COVID-19 fades.

After two statewide halts in jury trials, jurors returned to the Allen County courts in numbers that were the envy of the state, their confidence bolstered by enhanced cleaning and other steps we took to make sure they were safe while serving their civic duty at the Courthouse. When jury trials resumed, we began summoning jurors in smaller numbers, more times a day, to reduce the time they spend waiting and increase the ability to socially distance.

Our judges and staff explored alternate locations for hearings, trials and other events. We held Drug Court and Veterans Court graduations and the first four graduations of our new Family Recovery outside the Courthouse to make sure we kept people safe while celebrating their triumphs in the battle against addiction. Two Adoption Day events have taken place during the pandemic, uniting more than 100 children with their forever families. The Allen County Juvenile Center cleared out a nearby storage facility and began offering off-site and drive-up genetic testing for families with pending court cases seeking to establish paternity and child support.

But we also expanded our use of video, social media and our website to communicate important information that was best seen, not just heard. Topics included our steps to promote juror safety and explanations of the national moratorium on evictions.

During that moratorium, our Small Claims Court partnered with state and community partners to keep renters and landlords working together to keep people in their homes during the worst days of the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.

After protests in our community in May 2020, Superior Court worked to be part of the solution by partnering with Fort Wayne UNITED to provide implicit bias training to court employees so we could all be better partners with the people we serve.

Superior Court also launched other new ways to serve the public, including a first-of-its-kind program to return unclaimed foreclosure surpluses to the former property owners.

We are working on even more ways to serve, from improving the reach of mental health services to participating in a pilot project allowing cameras in Indiana's courtrooms.

When I stepped into the role of Chief Judge in January of 2020, the enormity of the unprecedented challenges of the two years ahead was impossible to imagine. I now look back with immense pride at how our court stepped up, worked together and reimagined everything we do and how we do it – all to benefit those we serve.

What once was unimaginable has made the Allen County Courts better, more nimble and more responsive in ways that will last long after the pandemic becomes history.

Andrea R. Trevino is a judge with Allen Superior Court.

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