Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Accessing the Justice We Pursue
Julia K. Stronks
August 26, 2011
by Julia K. Stronks
The national political scene has taken over the news this summer. The debt-ceiling crisis, the unstable stock market, and politicians’ civic discord dominate our discussions. But, as we move into another election year with a 24-hour cable news cycle, it is important that we don’t get distracted from our call to justice.
As Christians one of our most important political responsibilities is to consider the impact of public policies on the weak and the poor among us. An often overlooked aspect of policy analysis includes thinking about the access that lower and even middle income citizens have to our justice system. We are a nation that relies heavily on private law to hold our institutions accountable. Sex abuse by clergy, environmental catastrophe caused by human negligence, the gutting of state pensions—victims of all of these tragedies needed to hire lawyers to help them seek justice. Everyday life can also necessitate consultation with a legal professional. Being fired from a job, losing a home after unemployment, straightening out credit challenges, protecting a small business from a frivolous lawsuit, getting reestablished after identity theft, recovering from a terrible car accident—common events can also require legal assistance.
Unfortunately, though the United States has one lawyer per every 300 people, we do not do a good job assuring access to the legal system. The World Justice Project’s 2011 Rule of Law Index reveals that, despite our relatively high per capita income, we rank 21st out of 66 nations in terms of our citizenry’s access to our criminal and civil justice systems. The American Bar Association estimates that in some regions up to 80% of society’s legal needs are not met. Many lawyers volunteer a gift of money or time as one way to meet the needs of those who cannot afford legal help, but government itself can also be a tool to advance or limit access to justice.
In June the Supreme Court handed down two decisions that impact citizen’s access to the legal system. Walmart v. Dukes concerns gender discrimination at Walmart stores across the nation. The Justices decided that the group of plaintiffs bringing the case was too large and their experiences too different to be considered together in a single class-action suit. However, it was clear from the decision that smaller groups of plaintiffs, possibly geographically connected, would be allowed to bring their discrimination cases to the court. As a result, while most class-action litigation occurs in federal courts, we are likely to see class-action policy at the state level increase in importance.
In Turner v. Rogers the Court held that the Constitution does not require that we appoint an attorney for a poor person facing jail time for civil contempt of court, the kind of contempt that often arises in family law cases. However, while attorneys are not Constitutionally required, states still have a great deal of room to either choose to provide legal counsel or to craft alternative systems that are more user-friendly to people without a legal background.
Both of these cases suggest that states have to think through how to guarantee “access to the system.” This, in turn, means that we have to be active in understanding what our own states require or allow. Different states are considering policies such as a civil right to an attorney, tort reform, modifying class-action litigation or limiting funding of legal aide. Matters like these are just as important to our political life as the 2012 election cycle.
—Julia K. Stronks, J.D., Ph.D., has practiced law and is a professor of Political Science at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA. She is working on a project demonstrating that at times the ordinary practice of law in fields like business, tort or family law can be an act of social justice. If you are a lawyer doing this sort of work or have stories or ideas related to this theme, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”