As we honor the past, we need fresh thinking to ensure access to justice for all
Although we learn the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in our school years, we can gain from reflecting on its words and reminding ourselves of the basic priorities the founders set for our nation: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice … .”
Establish justice. These words succinctly express the crucial role entrusted to our profession in our democracy. As I begin my year as president of the American Bar Association, our priorities and initiatives are guided by this fundamental mission.
Our charge to establish justice is rooted in the Magna Carta’s principles of due process, trial by jury and the notion that no person is above the law. To honor the Great Charter’s 800th anniversary next year, Law Day events in May will educate communities on the document’s lasting legacy. The ABA plans a host of other activities throughout the year, culminating with the rededication of the refurbished Magna Carta monument in England on the June 15, 2015, anniversary date.
The determination to establish justice fuels the ABA’s efforts to help our members serve with competence, ethics and professionalism. This determination shapes our efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. It instructs our work to improve access to justice for those who would otherwise not have a lawyer at their side when they need to protect their lives and livelihoods.
In spite of the aspirations of our founding documents—and despite our persistent efforts to advocate for legal aid funding, expand pro bono and champion other causes for justice—our mission to establish justice has fallen short. For years, the troubling statistics have stayed constant: Eighty percent of people who are poor, and many others of moderate means, do not get the civil legal assistance they need. Half of those who apply for legal aid are turned away because of lack of resources.
In many respects, our criminal justice system also fails to establish justice. The system is overstretched and fiscally unsustainable. It often denies low-level, nonviolent offenders the chance to move on and live productive, law-abiding lives. Victims of domestic violence are often revictimized because there are not enough pro bono lawyers to represent them.
Our profession and justice system are overdue for fresh thinking. We must continue our advocacy for adequate funding of core justice system functions while reimagining the fundamental roles of courts and seeking new ways to ensure more and better access for the public. By leveraging technology and innovation, we can identify new models to deliver legal services that remain rooted in the essential values of protecting the public and pursuing justice for all.
Our efforts to establish justice for the 21st century will be led by the new ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services. The commission will bring innovators together with practicing lawyers, judges, regulators, academics and others who have a stake in ensuring justice for all. We will encourage participants at community grassroots meetings and at a national convocation to bring their ideas to the table. We will help the organized bar take its rightful leadership role in creating an accessible and sustainable justice system for the future.
This year we also will work to establish justice by continuing the ABA’s efforts to enact practical, cost-saving criminal justice reforms that protect public safety while bringing more fairness to our penal system. And as we mark the 20th anniversaries of the federal Violence Against Women Act and ABA Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, we will reinvigorate our efforts to encourage lawyers to work on behalf of victims.
I have been honored to work this past year with ABA President Jim Silkenat, and we are grateful for his inspired leadership. He exemplifies the best of our profession. I look forward to leading your association this year, learning from you, and making progress on our initiatives to establish justice—not for some, but for all.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Preamble to Progress: As we honor the past, we need fresh thinking to ensure access to justice for all.”