“No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom” is the ABA’s national theme for Law Day. And this year, there is special urgency in Florida to help educate citizens not only about the importance of maintaining a fully funded court system, but to ensure that the judiciary remains independent and free of political attacks.
A cautionary tale comes from Iowa, where three justices were ousted from the bench in a merit retention election in 2010. They were targeted by special interest groups led by the Mississippi-based American Family Association, riled up by a unanimous decision allowing gay and lesbian people full access to the institution of civil marriage. (See February 15 story.)
This year in Florida, three Supreme Court justices are up for merit retention: Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince. Another 15 members of the Florida courts of appeal also face merit retention. They are bracing for an Iowa-style effort to unseat them when their names are on the general election ballot in November.
Bar President Scott Hawkins tells Florida lawyers in the March Journal: “You are in the best position in our society to help others understand what judges do. And now is the time to begin sharing that message. The critical role of judges is fundamental to our democracy. Why do I say this? So often we hear others talk about the importance of the rule of law — which undoubtedly is bedrock to American democracy. However, very seldom does public discussion focus on the fact that the rule of law is only as strong as the quality of the judges who uphold it.”
But gauging the quality of justices and judges can be difficult for the average voter, who may never have set foot in court. It’s also hard to assess the merits of judges because they can’t tell you how they will make decisions in future cases and are constrained on what they can communicate.
“Unless one has been through litigation, it is difficult to grasp what judges do,” Hawkins said. “Hence, the importance of your role as firsthand observers of judges in our culture.
“. . .In the coming months, there will be political rhetoric about particular courts or why particular judges should not be retained. Further, as the fall elections get closer, Bar members will be asked by voters in their communities to give their views on particular courts and whether particular judges should be retained. As you respond to such questions and evaluate political comments about the court, I urge you to reflect on what judges do — including their fundamental role in upholding the rule of law. In the process, I urge you to share your perspective on what judges do and what factors should be considered when determining whether a judge merits retention.”
An independent judiciary is not only threatened by political attacks, but by financial cutbacks, Hawkins said. Florida’s courts have already been stung by the consequences of funding shortages: hiring freezes, staff layoffs, and increased filing fees in recent years. Last year, Chief Justice Charles Canady had to go hat in hand to the governor for multi-million-dollar advances to ward off the real threat of outright closures. As State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner has said, she can’t make people work if she can’t pay them.
While Florida’s court funding crisis has been rescued with greater stabilization and less reliance on volatile foreclosure filing fees, Hawkins emphasizes the Bar can never become complacent because there are dire consequences when serious funding shortages endanger the ability of courts to provide access to justice for all people.
With dramatic cuts in funding to the Florida Bar Foundation, because of low interest rates on trust accounts, low-income and indigent people are in danger of losing that access to justice.
“Given their historic role as the protectors of the least advantaged in our nation, the courts have rightly been called ‘Society’s Emergency Room.’ And never is that title so warranted as in times of economic distress. The same recession that has led legislatures to reduce access to our justice system has obviously increased the numbers of people who need it,” said an ABA Task Force on the Preservation of Justice.
ABA President Bill Robinson has invited The Florida Bar, and all state and voluntary bars, to join in a national dialog on raising awareness of just how vital the courts are to people’s everyday lives in resolving disputes and carrying out justice. The American way of life depends on open and accessible courts.
Law Day, officially May 1, is an opportunity to educate the community about the courts, the law, and our rights. Voluntary bar associations in Florida are busy planning special Law Day celebrations to do just that. Among the plans for Law Day celebrations are:
Sorraya Solages, president of the Dade County Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, described week-long plans for Law Day activities, including a community fair to educate the public about the courts, why access to everyone is crucial, and to raise awareness about the budget crisis.
The Young Lawyers Section of the Hispanic Bar Association of Central Florida is making plans for Law Day 2012.
“Our goal is to join forces with local judges and attorneys to hold an interactive session about the function of the court system in the United States,” said Jessica Gonzalez-Monge. “The session will be directed towards teens and/or pre-teens. Ultimately, our objective is to enhance their knowledge and interest in the U.S. court system and law as a whole.”