Posted Jul 01, 2011 09:10 am CDT
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<div class="segment"> <img src="http://images.abajournal.com/mag_images/SteveZack_BlueTie.jpg" alt="image" width="150" height="196" /><p class="float_img_caption">Photo of Steve Zack by Neal Bredbeck</p>
One of the things the ABA should offer is a complete picture of key issues in the legal profession. Call it connecting the dots. And that’s why this year’s work by four different interconnected ABA entities is so important. In their own way, each is safeguarding our constitutional democracy for generations to come.
The first issue—or dot to connect—is that our state courts are being starved of funds and attacked politically. As we know, the vast majority of court cases and public interaction with the justice system take place in state and local courts. The weakness of those courts threatens our entire rule of law. We have to begin effectively addressing this crisis, now.
On that front, there are significant developments emanating from the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, chaired by David Boies and Ted Olson. Together with nearly two dozen diverse, top-flight lawyers, this dream team has held national hearings on the crises in state courts and come up with recommendations for fixing these systemic problems.
The ABA House of Delegates will consider these recommendations next month; that’s just the beginning of real and desperately needed progress on this issue. My successor, Bill Robinson, will continue the task force and has made the issue a top priority.
That dot is joined to another: deeply discouraging reports about the American public’s lack of civic understanding and participation. It’s not surprising that courts are under constant threat, since nearly two-thirds of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, and less than half can name a single Supreme Court justice. As long as politicians and the public complain that the courts are not “responsive” enough to public will (because they are required to follow the Constitution), we have real problems.
These problems are being addressed by the ABA Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools and the ABA Civics and Law academies it is creating nationwide. Teaching the next generation of Americans the fundamentals of civics—such as balance of powers, the Bill of Rights and the marketplace of ideas—is crucial to our future. The ABA now has free online materials that lawyers can use to voluntarily teach civics in schools, and is promoting impressive Web tools like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics.org effort. We’re also asking the U.S. Department of Education and state legislators to make changes that encourage civic education in schools.
The next dot is meeting the desire of new americans to participate in the American dream and rule of law. Fifty years after John F. Kennedy reminded us in his book that we are all A Nation of Immigrants, our country continues to welcome and value newcomers.
Immigrants come to America because of its reputation for freedom and opportunity, and the lack of both in their homelands. Few could love this country’s laws and principles more. But the U.S. legal system is not yet fully responsive to American immigrants. For example, Hispanic-Americans make up 16 percent of all Americans but less than 5 percent of American lawyers. This must change. The justice system will be stronger if it reflects the public it serves. And—connecting the dots again—Hispanic young people also must be taught American civic values.
The ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities has held close to half a dozen hearings all over the U.S. this year, zeroing in on the biggest issues facing the Hispanic community, as well as opportunities to effect change. It too is preparing a report and recommendations to the ABA, and will continue its work, with the full support of Bill Robinson.
A final dot that connects to the rule of law is protecting it in times of disaster—manmade or natural. This year’s natural disasters in the U.S. and Japan have reminded us all of how life can change in the blink of an eye. And the impact on the justice system can be devastating. The ABA is currently working with bar associations and FEMA to help hard-hit states.
We’ve also marked some major victories in helping courts plan ahead. New York’s recent rules changes, akin to the ABA’s proposal known as the “Katrina rule,” make it easier for out-of-state lawyers to help without worrying about charges of unauthorized practice of law.
Countless ABA members have been involved in these efforts, and if you’re not already involved, we need your input. Learn more about all of these issues on the ABA website and please share your thoughts. As this year heads to a close, join us in connecting the dots.
Letters: Supporting Civic Education