by Eugene K. Pettis
Since we were elementary school students, it has been ingrained in us as Americans to embrace the idea of “justice for all.” Every time we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and close with the words, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” we are reminded of this principle.
If we took a poll, an overwhelming majority of people, irrespective of party affiliation, economic class, or religion would say they support fair and impartial courts that are accessible to all.
But what does such an endorsement really mean? Have we as a society become callous to the true meaning of those principles? Individually, do we stand with the same conviction for those principles as our forefathers did, during the founding of this great country, with their recognition that an effective and respected court system was essential to sustain a true democracy?
I pose these questions to pause and reflect on where we stand, individually and as a society, in matching our rhetoric with our deeds. Given such universal support for the idea of justice for all, are we protecting and maintaining our system of justice as the vehicle through which justice flows?
When we speak of our system of justice as the beacon of our democracy, we must understand each citizen’s access to our courts is essential. In Florida, our judicial system is designed to ensure fair and impartial courts, representative of all Floridians.
Those component parts include encouraging qualified lawyers and citizens to serve on our judicial nominating commissions, worthy candidates willing to step up for consideration to serve on the bench, and our governor who is tasked with the ultimate selection.
Each step is critical to the end result. If any step fails, it impacts our end result: justice. We must recognize the interconnectivity of justice. If we do not maintain the constitutional systems that create the framework for liberty and justice, we cannot achieve these ideals. The foundation of this promise is our judiciary.
Florida, in 1971, adopted Article V, which created a nonpartisan ballot and a merit selection system as the method of choosing judges. Whenever a judicial vacancy occurs, a slate of at least three (no more than six) qualified nominees is chosen by a JNC — a nonpartisan, nine-member body composed of lay citizens and lawyers. This list of nominees is then submitted to the governor, who fills the vacancy by appointing one of those nominees to the bench.
It is critical that each level of this process remains above politics and partisanship. Think how refreshing it would be to genuinely seek the best person to fill a vacancy, irrespective of party affiliation. If the goal is to find the best person to serve, then that can’t be limited to a single party — whether Democrat or Republican, or any other political party. A truly objective process would be a reflection of all of society — every race, gender, and party affiliation.
The second challenge is to make sure that our system of justice is accessible to all. This raises the concern of the undeniable widening gap of those who can afford legal representation and the growing many (including members of the middle class) who cannot.
If we want to truly bring life to the words “with liberty and justice for all,” then we must ensure all citizens have a pathway into our justice system to resolve their disputes.
The Florida Bar has undertaken a review of how best to deliver pro bono legal services by the Vision 2016 commission studying how we can bridge the gap that separates so many of our neighbors from access to justice. We must recognize that this is not just a legal problem, but a problem that affects all of society. Given the grave consequence of failure in this task, success is our only option.
It is only when we recognize and accept that our individual roles are part of a larger interconnected system that we can truly commit to justice for all.
We must commit to honest objectivity at all levels of our judiciary — from the merit selection process through adequate and sustainable funding for our court system that is accessible to every citizen.
That is the only way we can accomplish “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
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