Indiana chief justice says court can help economy

Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard used his final speech to the Legislature on Wednesday to chart how far the state's judicial system has come during his 25 years heading the state's highest court.

Shepard, who announced his retirement in December, delivered his annual State of the Judiciary speech to a crowd of legislators and black-robed judges.

Shepard said the "graciousness" of lawmakers and judges he has worked with over the years "will allow me to leave the stage with full confidence that we will succeed in building Indiana as a safe and prosperous and decent place."

He praised judges around the state for their work in developing special purpose courts such as drug and family courts, and boasted about the state's child advocate program, in which volunteers represent children's interests in court.

Shepard also outlined improvements in court technology, such as an online docket system and a feature that gives women's shelters direct access to the statewide Protective Order Registry so they can better protect victims. He said a new system that sends emails or text messages to victims when a protective order is served on their abusers sent notices to 9,300 victims last year.

"In the cases involving the worst threats, we have more tools than ever for combating domestic violence," he said.

He also said improvements in the state's legal system have helped courts become an aid — or at least not a hindrance — to Indiana's economic development.

Shepard said businesses shy away from some states because of the legal climate, but Indiana isn't one of them. He cited work done by judges and lawyers to simplify rules for juries and evidence, saying legal complexity could be a barrier to new business.

He also said the courts were delivering direct economic assistance to people by using revamped practices designed to make it easier for homeowners to rewrite their mortgages and avoid foreclosure. He said the new practices, which have been deployed in 20 counties that account for 2/3 of the state's foreclosures, increased the chance of a homeowner keeping his or her home by six times.

"Could there be a better cause, a more worthwhile way to 'spend and be spent' in life than working toward greater justice?" he said.

Hundreds of union members protesting right-to-work legislation were kept away from the House chambers during the speech. The group was generally quiet while Shepard spoke, but resumed booing a shortly thereafter.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a statement in which he credited the protesters with showing respect for the state's top judge.

"It has been a privilege for me to serve as an officer of the court during Randy Shepard's watch, and our judicial system has benefited significantly from the innovations he implemented," Zoeller said.

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