President’s letter – August, 2020
Hello, and goodbye.
Hello to my fellow workers’ compensation adjudicators, one and all. And goodbye, as this is my final opportunity to address you as President of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary. For that reason, and because I have a lot I need to say, please forgive the length of this epistle.
It has been an honor to serve the premier organization representing, educating, and informing workers’ compensation adjudicators across the country. We at NAWCJ have a lot to be proud of, and even more to offer. NAWCJ will continue to identify issues of common concern to the workers’ compensation judiciary, and will continue to develop and present programming to give context, clarity, and multiple perspectives regarding those issues. That is our mission. That is our goal.
Wow! What a year! I am forced to acknowledge that, during my presidency, we as an organization accomplished much less than under previous administrations. No spring “Boot Camp,” no fall conference, no annual service day in support of the Give Kids the World charitable organization, no joint sponsorship of the E. Earle Zehmer Moot Court Competition, and no Judiciary College. While those failures are attributable to snit fits thrown by Mother Nature, from an early-spring middle Tennessee tornado to a world-wide pandemic, and not directly to my short-comings as a leader, this may well be remembered as “the year that wasn’t.”
Arriving literally on the heels of the Tennessee tornado, the pandemic upended our plans for the summer and fall of 2020. Not only were NAWCJ’s plans sidelined, but each and every one of us had to confront the disruption of our individual and collective dockets. For most, the sudden move to a shut-down was completely unexpected, and in many cases, unplanned-for. A scramble ensued to acquire, install, and implement a variety of technologies meant to mitigate reduced access to workers’ compensation tribunals. Workers’ Compensation, as a nation-wide system, like the civil and criminal courts, faltered, stumbled, and then regained its footing. Hearings resumed, albeit by telephone conference calls or videoconferences. We all, litigants and adjudicators alike, adapted on the fly to changed circumstances, and made it work.
Similarly, NAWCJ adapted. We accomplished planning and preparation for the annual conference and Judiciary College through multiple virtual meetings, not knowing what the future would allow. Ultimately, our fall conference and Judiciary College had to be postponed. COVID-19 has demonstrated its dogged determination to force us to reexamine our goals and the means for accomplishing them.
Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity this year to work literally side by side in presenting continuing judicial education. That is, and will remain, one of my biggest personal regrets. I always look forward to the collegiality of meeting and working with judges from across the country towards the common goal of mutual enlightenment. This year we missed the opportunities for active collaboration in both Nashville and Orlando, but the future holds many more.
While it seems like the pandemic has gone on forever, and that there is no end in sight, the pandemic, too, must pass. Its effects will linger, however, as there will be whole new sets of issues that we, the front-line adjudicators, will have to confront. Whether workers’ compensation benefits are to be available for victims of COVID-19 and, if so, which ones, will be front and center. The issue of presumptions will likely garner a lot of attention. There will also be the collateral discussion of how the class benefited by any presumption is defined, and whether it makes sense (or justice) to include some, but exclude others. The facility and ease of access available through virtual hearings will likely trigger changes in how we manage our dockets. We will still have our work, it will still be important, but it will be different. In short, our concept of “normal” will be forever changed. NAWCJ will retain its role, too – keeping us all abreast of the changes and trends, and exploring the new issues confronting us.
The pandemic and its fallout have been the focus of our attention for much of the last six months, and have cast their shadows over much of my tenure as president. I now look forward to handing the presidential reins to Judge Deneise Lott of Mississippi. I wish her the best, and fewer challenges than were presented this year, as a I transition to what Judge Jim Szablewicz of Virginia calls the “best job in the world” – that of “Past President.”
I would like to thank the Executive Board and Board of Directors for their advice, guidance and support this year. Special thanks go to Judge Michael Alvey, who has been my sounding block and primary resource throughout my tenure. I would like to acknowledge and say a big “Thank You” to Judges Pamela Johnson and Ken Switzer, both of Tennessee, for their hard work in developing our educational programming. Judge Johnson was at the helm in preparing for the Nashville Boot Camp, and Judge Switzer led the charge for the Judiciary College. In both events, we had quality course offerings with outstanding faculty. I am certain each would have been an unqualified success. Judge Shannon Bruno, our next President-Elect, also deserves acknowledgment for her efforts in shepherding the Judiciary College’s Conference Committee and managing the logistics for the conference that never was. I must also thank Judge LuAnn Haley and the editorial committee for the Lex and Verum, for consistently publishing a quality newsletter befitting our organization. Finally, I would also like to thank the crew at Resource Managers and WCI360, Kathy Shelton, Shirley Kendall, and Woody Douglas for being our “boots on the ground,” and getting things done, from maintaining our website to collecting dues, paying the bills, and emailing newsletters and ballots.
I would also like to acknowledge and thank you, our members, for your membership and support. By joining NAWCJ, we’ve made a conscious decision to be better-informed judges. We owe it to ourselves, our agencies, and the attorneys and litigants who appear before us to be the best judges that we can be. Being better informed, and open to new ideas and concepts, are significant steps down the path to better judging. By constantly working to improve your judging skills, you serve as a role model to other judges and to the practicing workers’ compensation bar. NAWCJ will be there with and for you as you endeavor to enhance your judicial skills and elevate your judging to the next level.
As I return to NAWCJ’s rank and file, I look forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship with NAWCJ, its membership, and its goals. Thank you for the opportunity to have been of service.
Be the best judge that you can be . . . and wear the dang mask!