Every year, we celebrate Law Day – the day first proclaimed in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower to be set aside to celebrate the rule of law. Following a Congressional resolution passed in 1961, May 1 has been officially designated to celebrate Law Day.
The American Bar Association has been a good steward of Law Day first by proposing it in 1957 and since then providing the nation with themes to consider as we reflect on the ways in which legal process secures freedoms that Americans recognize and share. This year’s Law Day theme unfortunately is stated in the negative: “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.” The theme signals the growing crisis of funding decline of court systems across the country and the dramatic consequences to our accepted way of life. ABA President Bill Robinson, a partner at Frost Brown Todd LLC, is a great champion and eloquent spokesperson on this theme and has been carrying the message on behalf of the profession.
These funding issues and their impacts are stark. The stories of hardships on court systems around the country are by now legion. The problems range from one Ohio municipal court system requiring litigants to bring their own paper to the courthouse when filing new cases to the State of New Hampshire’s suspension of all civil jury trials for one year. And dozens of other court systems have experienced all manner of travails in recent years due to decreased funding. The ABA has assembled a comprehensive and sobering online resource list that is highly worth reviewing if even just to note the array of issues from the multitude of locations. (Visit http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/initiatives_awards/law_day_2012.html.)
Closer to home, Indiana appears not to have fared as poorly overall as its sister states in the area of court system resources. Let’s credit the Indiana Supreme Court and our county court systems for keeping the ship of legal state afloat to this point. But that’s not to say there are not problems here too. Indiana courts, like other parts of the public safety and criminal justice systems, are facing budget cuts, employee layoffs, and the need for fee increases to fund even basic court services. And perhaps the biggest threat is yet to come. The property tax revenue losses stemming from the effects of the “circuit breaker” legislation as well as the decline in local income tax proceeds due to the struggling economy of the past few years has put tremendous stress on local budgets throughout the state. The question will become – as it has been posed in so many other states – how will the judiciary and court system fare under these funding stresses?
So, what can we do? My argument is first things first – let’s be aware of these issues so that we are prepared to have meaningful discussions about them as part of the debate about system funding in the Indiana General Assembly, local legislative bodies, and in the profession. Maybe a true crisis won’t hit Indiana, maybe we’ll avert it, but the best chance to do so may lie with a well informed bench and bar. This isn’t someone else’s problem, I suggest, but ours to lead on. Just as we represent our clients, so too can we represent the citizenry in guaranteeing for them the court system they deserve and that our constitutional principles demand.
Let me conclude on a positive note. The 2012 Law Day theme has room in it for inspiration. And the IndyBar’s Paralegal Committee has taken up that cause. Under the leadership of Committee Chair Joanne Alexovich, the Paralegal Committee is conducting a program at the Indianapolis Public Schools’ Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy, which is a college preparatory program for students in grades 6-12 focusing on the principles of democracy, justice, respect and service to others. For Law Day, the Committee is showcasing to more than 200 students careers related to the legal field that do not require a law degree in order to present a well rounded perspective of the resources needed within the legal field. The program will include representatives from a variety of careers including paralegals, administrative assistants, bailiffs, legal software specialists, court reporters, information technology specialists, court clerks and probation officers.
Thanks to the Paralegal Committee and thanks in advance to members of the bar for spending a little time reflecting on Law Day and what it means to maintaining a civil society.•