Cuts to Courts are Denying Access to Justice: Panelists at ABA Law Day Program
Leaders from all political stripes — representing business interests, lawyers and civics organizations — came together on Law Day 2012 to raise awareness of the crisis in state court underfunding.
Support for more court funding expands.
Read statements from various organizations around the country in support of Law Day.
Mark Agrast, chair of National Law Day, opened the May 1 press conference held in Washington, D.C., by reading lines from the proclamation issued earlier in the day by President Barack Obama recognizing Law Day. “Our courts are the guarantors of civil justice, social order, and public safety, and we must do everything we can to enable their critical work,” read Agrast. “The courthouse doors must be open and necessary services must be in place …”
“Freedom is in jeopardy,” said American Bar Association President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, speaking about what the cuts taking place around the country to state court systems mean. We need to speak up, and stand up, for our courts, he continued. This year’s Law Day theme is “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.” As Eric T. Washington, chief judge for the D.C. Court of Appeals and president of the Conference of Chief Justices, noted, 42 states cut funding for their judiciaries in 2011 even though state courts handle 95 percent of all cases filed in the United States and the caseload is on the rise.
In addition to wasted productivity when citizens stand in long lines waiting for their cases to be heard — delays that mean lost revenue for both employees and businesses — the budget ax means cuts to security in keeping those who come to the courts safe, Washington stated.
Washington and Elaine R. Jones — president and director-counsel emeritus for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. — spoke to the historical and special role that the judiciary has in protecting our rights. “Courts aren’t perfect, but they are indispensable,” noted Washington. And Jones said, “Judges aren’t special, but they are different.”
“Courts are the great leveler” in our society, Jones explained. They provide a systematic, orderly way for settling matters for those who seek justice. Linda Lipsen, chief executive officer at the American Association for Justice, mentioned that, from coast to coast, life’s most pressing issues — divorce, child custody, housing, and consumer and health matters — are all handled by our courts.
State court systems are not being treated as the co-equal branch of government that they are. Washington said that most state judiciaries receive less than 2 percent of the state budget. Indeed, as Jones detailed, Georgia has cut its courts budget to .89 percent, to the point where judges have gone beyond furloughs and freezing pay to soliciting donations of pens and pencil for the courts. I have this vision of judges in robes with cups in their hands, seeking handouts of pens and pencils, Jones lamented.
Theodore B. Olson, co-chair of the ABA’s Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System and former U.S. solicitor general, said quite plainly that we as a nation “cannot ensure the rights of citizens without courts.” When funding cuts are as dire as they currently are, the poorest and most disadvantaged are the ones who are hurt the most. And court funding cuts now have gone “beyond the bone to the marrow,” stated Olson.
In responding to a question from the audience about whether it would be within the realm of reason for a citizen to bring a case because she felt her constitutional rights were being denied by lack of access via the courts, Olson stated that it would not be a leap for that to occur.
The fact that we are standing together on this issue goes to the seriousness of the problem, said Lisa Rickard, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and president of the Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, talking about the diversity of interests on the dais. American business relies on a fair, independent judicial system, said Rickard, explaining that businesses often can’t get credit when a case is pending against them; that new products may not get launched, stock prices may remain low and the business image itself may be poor during the same period. The “rule of law is vital to economic prosperity,” capped Rickard.
At the beginning of the program, James C. Duff, president and chief executive officer at the Freedom Forum, and chief executive officer, Newseum and Diversity Institute, welcomed attendees to the Newseum venue.