You know a national issue is serious when Tavis Smiley covers it with a town hall meeting. The cool, calm and collected host of the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS has now turned his attention to our decrepit justice system. He’s hosting a series of town halls this year to discover how an entire branch of government has come to fail so routinely.
Our courts are better known for injustice these days than for justice, and Tavis Smiley wants to know why. So do I. So do many others. There’s a litany of failures to be addressed. While the judicial branch is at the legislature’s mercy when it comes to funding, court administrators decide how those funds are spent. More should be allocated to ensuring regular people have access to justice.
In divorce, eviction and most other cases, we know that people represented by lawyers fare much better than those without. Yet legal aid organizations are so underfunded that even eligible low-income people can’t get lawyers to represent them. Millions of middle-class people find themselves in court without a lawyer, forced to fight their way alone through complicated legal procedures and local rules. Courts have responded to this crisis by providing legal forms designed for speedy resolution of cases rather than for justice.
Nearly 40 states have created task forces or commissions to study obstacles to delivering legal services, but access to justice remains limited to the rich and the lucky. In half the states, people who need and deserve free language translators can’t get them. Many of the disabled are literally denied access to the courts by physical barriers at the courthouse. Criminal courts are rife with disparate sentencing.
There are courses made specifically for judges to help them combat implicit biases. But statistics and news stories tell us that prison sentences are still too often based on who you are rather than what you’ve done. The bias against unrepresented litigants in civil courts is just as bad. That’s why we developed Courtroom5, to help litigants make the best impression in court, and to help judges avoid mistaking them for people who lack legal skills.
The American people have lost faith in the justice system, and court officials throughout the country know it. Several judges reached out to Smiley to request the public meetings, earning his praise:
This is essentially a listening tour – something we expect from political candidates but not from judges who preside over the highest courts in our land. I am gratified that many of the most influential judges in the country are eager to step down from the bench and engage in a free and open exchange with the people most affected by their decisions. This frank discussion is unprecedented. Securing the public’s trust in our judicial system is fundamental to our democracy.
Entitled “Courting Justice,” and co-hosted by the National Center for State Courts, the series has three town hall meetings scheduled for this year, in Los Angeles, Little Rock and Cleveland. The first was held June 10th at Loyola School of Law. Panelists included Eric T. Washington, chief judge for the District of Columbia; Daniel J. Buckley, a Los Angeles superior court judge; Justice Maria P. Rivera of the California appeals court; Jimmie Edwards, a judge in St. Louis County, Missouri; and Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of the California Supreme Court. It was a fascinating discussion, with passionate and informed questions from an audience of community activists, legal aid lawyers, and regular people caught up in the failures of the system. Listen here.
Have you been treated unfairly by the judicial system? How would you fix our courts? Share in the comments below.