Robert M. Spire Award Hon. Mike Heavican Celebrated for His Devotion to the Law 5/1/18 05/01/18 9:41:14 AM
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Hon. Mike Heavican has spent his whole career in public service to bring justice to the people of Nebraska.
Robert M. Spire Award
Hon. Mike Heavican Celebrated for His Devotion to the Law
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The Chief Justice is in a unique position to honor the legacy of Robert M. Spire, the late lawyer for whom the Omaha Bar Association’s Public Service Award is named.
At the Law Day luncheon on May 1, Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Michael G. (he goes by Mike) Heavican will receive the award named for his mentor.
Asked what the award meant to him, Heavican replied, “Obviously it’s huge to anyone who is given the award, but Bob Spire was somebody I worked with as a young lawyer. When he was the [Nebraska] attorney general, I was the Lancaster county attorney. We had a lot of interaction. He was a magnificent lawyer, a fantastic example to everyone who practices law as to integrity and hard work and so forth, so the award means a great deal to me.”
Mike Heavican first came to this writer’s attention when he became Nebraska’s attorney general in 2001. During an interview, he was friendly, soft-spoken, laid back, confident and knowledgeable. Seventeen years later, not much has changed in his demeanor.
Visiting after the Supreme Court’s hearing of oral arguments at Millard North High School on an April afternoon, he shared his thoughts on the necessity of the Supreme Court educating the public about the Judicial branch of government, and about his role in making that happen.
“The most basic thing to do is to provide a fair and impartial forum to handle legal disputes. You cannot overestimate the importance of that system for any democracy and certainly Nebraska has a flourishing democracy as a state, and the country as a whole, and an independent Judiciary is all-important to maintain that,” Heavican said.
“You can almost be assured that if you find a dysfunctional country, it’s because there is not an independent judiciary, and THAT is because the executive branch probably has usurped the powers of the Judiciary.”
What other services does our high court have to ensure people have access to justice?
“With regard to services, the Nebraska Supreme Court regulates the legal profession, we do all of the juvenile justice supervision work through our probation office. We do all of the adult probation work in the state, which is increasingly important because of our overcrowded prison situation. We have the public guardian as part of the Supreme Court, so we provide a lot of services, in addition to the court services we provide,” he said.
Spire award winners demonstrate a commitment to the public’s knowledge of the law. Referring to the appearances at Millard North, as well as at Creighton School of Law that morning, he noted, “This is part of that process. We try to do as much education as we can, and all of the kinds of outreach that we have been doing for decades, and even more intensely in recent years. [We do] these kinds of events in schools; webcasting of our oral arguments and cameras in the courts – generally we’ve tried to be more open so that we are not the forgotten branch of government.
“Every summer we do a reach-out program to an area of greater Nebraska. This summer we will be going up to northeast Nebraska. We will be visiting courthouses and judges and legal organizations and community members there. Our initial plan also includes visits to the reservations. It’s important that we reach out to all people of Nebraska.”
When Heavican was first named Chief Justice in 2006 by then-Governor Dave Heineman, the governor pointed to two areas in which he hoped Heavican would lead: “Protecting the best interests of vulnerable children and helping advance reasonable sentencing guidelines for community corrections.”
Heavican responded with the efforts he and the Court have made in the past 12 years.
[We have] “the Juvenile Justice supervision; we have active Eyes of the Child committees around the state trying to emphasize children in the courts; and we are an integral part of the efforts to have fewer people incarcerated and more of them handled by community corrections on the adult level, including the diversion courts.”
When Heavican became Chief Justice, Sen. Ben Nelson said he hoped he would “continue the tradition of John Hendry by taking the bench out to the people and being an outgoing spokesman and advocate for the law.” Check.
Heavican also noted he has tried to fulfill his promise to be “as accessible as retiring Chief Justice John Hendry.”
Asked what the people’s perception is of the Judicial Branch, Heavican said, “Surveys show that we are viewed more positively by the public than our other two compatriot branches of government. I think most people have a positive opinion of the courts, but, of course, it is important for us to do these kinds of outreach things to be accessible.”
These are difficult times. What kind of challenges will the Court face in the future?
“We have huge challenges on budgetary issues. Most of our budget comes from the Legislature. Local courthouses are funded by local property tax dollars.
“But on a broader scale, lots of folks who have disputes to be resolved are going places other than the court system because our system is too slow and it costs too much money. For example, lots of people who are litigants in our court system can’t afford lawyers, so they try to represent themselves.
“Those are huge challenges for the profession that we have to take a very good look at and make sure that we are really efficient as to how we administer justice and also that we adapt to what people expect not only from the legal profession and the courts, but really from all institutions today. So, for example, we have to be technologically savvy and we have to make sure there is great access to the court system through technology.”
Do bar associations such as the Nebraska State Bar and the Omaha Bar have an important purpose in the judicial system?
“Bar associations are good because they bring lawyers together and they emphasize all the things that lawyers need to think of: a broader perspective, congeniality, working together, the need to educate the public, the special role the legal profession has in democracies. Those are things that bar associations foster and that is how the legal profession is refreshed, reborn and becomes more pertinent to everybody’s lives.” He means it – even though he lives in Lincoln, he attends many functions of the Omaha Bar Association, so many that some probably think he lives here.
Heavican spent his legal career before the Supreme Court as a prosecutor. The native of Columbus, Neb., earned his bachelor’s degree and juris doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He started his legal career as Deputy Lancaster County Attorney and worked his way up to County Attorney. In 1981, he joined the Nebraska Attorney General’s office and was appointed AG in 2001, with bi-partisan support in the Senate. After five years, he was selected to lead the Nebraska Supreme Court.
He was described by a colleague in the Lancaster County Attorney’s office as someone who “liked to be here early and see what people were doing, very involved in the office.” Robert Spire was once quoted as saying his motto was to “get up early and work hard, to listen to the people and accept criticism, to correct my mistakes and try to do what is right.”
It looks as if the OBA Public Service Award recipient has followed in the footsteps of Robert M. Spire. A fitting tribute, indeed.