Attack on justice in America
“The rule of law is actually in jeopardy in this country.”
That’s the assessment from the president of the American Bar Association, Stephen N. Zack, who spoke in Kansas City today before the International Relations Council.
Why so dire an outlook? He cites a lack of access to justice for up to 80 percent of the population. A lack of funding that is forcing courts elsewhere to curtail hours and cases. A population that is so poorly educated in civics that a majority has no idea what a constitutional democracy means. And a growing threat of campaigns to unseat judges based on single unpopular opinions, as happened in Iowa last November when three members of the Supreme Court were turned out of office following a unanimous civil marriage decision based on the state constitution, not popular opinion. Worse, the campaigns to oust judges nationally are often driven by anonymous donors.
Cuts in funding for courts have prompted some disturbing restrictions: The New Hampshire Supreme Court suspended all civil cases for a one year. The Georgia Supreme Court asked a corporate donor for pencils and paper. Alabama courts are working four days a week, cutting civil cases by half and criminal cases by one-third. And California court budget problems could lead to closing 180 courtrooms.
Pay for federal judges today matches second-year Wall Street lawyers. And 10 percent of the federal bench is vacant because Congress won’t approve nominees.
Zack is a proponent of state campaigns to require civics education again, as a tactic to preserve American justice. Florida, his home state, recently agreed to require civics for high school graduation. The lack of understanding of the system has produced some depressing findings in national polls, including three-quarters of Americans don’t know the First Amendment protections and a distressing number think the three branches of government are Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
As Zack explains, more Americans today don’t even believe in the image of a blindfolded Lady Justice promoting the ideal of equality of justice for all. Instead, many seem to prefer her holding a finger in the wind.
While years ago it was common to hear someone say “I disagree with what you have to say but I will defend your right to say it,” today that has been twisted to “I don’t agree with you and if you say it, you are a slime ball.”
Part of a good civics education would teach students that American justice protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Today it won’t be an easy sell, yet the need is great to explain the reasoning.
Zack, the first Hispanic American to hold the top ABA post, tells the story of his family’s escape from Cuba in 1961. As a young teen at the time, he asked his grandfather about his feelings on leaving his homeland. His grandfather said that while he was sad, he was happy, too, saying: “I’ll never be a refugee again because if the United States falls, there will be no place to go.”
Provided Americans can unite to preserve what makes justice here still the envy of much of the rest of the world.