- 2012 - April - 30th -

Know Courts, Know Justice, Know Freedom

by The Jacksonville Bar Association President Michael Freed

Law Day morphed into Law Week, which has now evolved — at least in Northeast Florida — into Law Month. Its expansion is a reflection of the tremendous number of activities organized by The Jacksonville Bar Association to celebrate and recognize the rule of law in our society.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the first Law Day in 1958 to mark the nation’s commitment to the rule of law. Every president since has issued a Law Day proclamation to celebrate the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.

Although Law Day is officially May 1, The JBA kicked off a month of activities on April 11 at a member lunch. We were honored to have American Bar Association President William Robinson give our keynote address. What an impressive and humble man.

I had the privilege of joining him and The Florida Bar President Scott Hawkins for a series of media interviews and meetings with various constituencies to address the Law Day theme and the compelling issues facing our profession and the judiciary.

This year’s theme, “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom,” highlights the significance of courts providing justice in our country. It is particularly fitting given the imminent opening of our new state courthouse in May and the ongoing concerns in Florida over the adequacy of funding the third and constitutionally coequal branch of government, the judiciary.

As President Robinson eloquently has stated it, “All of us must have and protect our right and our freedom to use courtrooms when we need to. That courtroom must be open to protect families. That courtroom must be open to validate and protect contracts for business. That courtroom must be open to keep the wheels of justice turning. That courtroom must be open to defend our individual rights to prove again and again that we continue to be a free society. All of that takes more money … not less and less money for our courts.”

It is incumbent on each of us to join Presidents Robinson and Hawkins as ambassadors for the rule of law and the judiciary. There are a variety of reasons why the public has an unfairly negative opinion of the role that courts play in our society.

One reason is polarizing and sometimes ignorant criticism by television and radio personalities in the face of court decisions that are unpopular with their audiences.

Even President Obama, a former law professor who should know better, stepped unfortunately into this fray recently, making comments that suggest that courts do not have the authority to overturn legislation deemed to be unconstitutional.

As all first-year law students (and we would hope the general public would) know, overturning unconstitutional legislation is exactly what American courts are intended to do. Often pockets of the public jump on the bandwagon of labeling a judge or a court “activist” or “obstructionist” without an intelligent analysis of the context in which the relevant legal issue was presented to the judge or court.

Another frustrating dynamic is that, for the most part, our judges are unable to speak out or up for themselves. Appropriately, judges are supposed to be outside and above the political fray. Yet the judiciary regularly is subjected to the forces of the political process.

Most obviously, the other two branches of the government (the same over which the judiciary passes constitutional judgment) set the budget for the judiciary. In Florida, that budget is 0.7 percent of the total state budget. (The highest of any state is 4 percent.) Well less than 1 percent to handle, as Robinson pointed out, more Florida state court cases filed last year than cases filed in the entire federal court system.

In short, our judiciary is being asked to do more and more with fewer resources and our judges are to be effectively voiceless in response.

That’s where we need to step up. Attorneys need to take every opportunity to remind those within our spheres of influence about the significant work that our courts do and how important it is to have an objective and fair funding process and an adequate and definite funding source. Our economy, our system of due process, and our very rights depend on it.

As I listened to President Robinson speak to multiple audiences, I had an ironic and sad observation: in many ways our judiciary is respected more abroad than it is in our own country. President Robinson travels internationally on a regular basis as an ambassador of the legal profession.

In other countries, both developed and developing, our justice system is viewed and emulated as the “gold standard” for any society that wants true democracy. President Robinson and other distinguished representatives of our profession and our courts are consulted regularly to assist new democracies in creating a system like ours.

Meanwhile, in the United States itself, Presidents Robinson, Hawkins and other Bar leaders frequently are called upon to defend our own courts in the face of unpopular decisions.

Neither our system nor all judges are perfect. That said, we need to remember and remind others of the strengths, significance and value of our system and to be a voice for our courts when they are unable to be voices for themselves.

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