Limiting resources tarnishes judiciary

Issue October 2010 By Denise Squillante

"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people …They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
- Thomas Jefferson

At a time when more citizens are more familiar with pop culture icons than the third branch of government, lack of court resources will further jeopardize awareness of the important role the judicial system plays in modern democracy.

As practitioners, we understand the immeasurable impact attorneys, judges and other stewards of the judicial system have in the lives of citizens. However, for the average citizen, who may or may not have had any experience with the system, convincing them of its importance is an increasingly difficult challenge. This problem is further accentuated by a finalized state budget that jeopardizes the courts' operations.

Now, with relocation on the top of mind for Trial Court officials, the already limited resources are pulled to unprecedented levels. With no relief in sight, the judicial branch of government continues to serve 42,000 citizens daily while operating on a shoestring budget.

Through the doors of the courthouses march real people with real problems seeking real solutions. Citizens who are unaware of the role of our judicial branch and who are seeking justice and service do not understand why they are not being served when counters lay empty of people to assist them. This leads to frustration. The average citizen does not understand the impact that underfunding has on their ability to access justice.

If citizens do not understand the role of our judiciary in government, it leads to a lack of  respect for the judges, a lack
of understanding regarding judicial discretion, and a lack of interest from citizens to advocate that their legislators adequately fund the judicial branch of government. Lack of appreciation for the judicial system can often translate to a
diminished perception of the value of lawyers.

To raise awareness of the judicial system's role in the lives of citizens, I challenge all members to work with the MBA to promote civics in the classroom and around the dinner table.

For those MBA leaders who have valiantly tackled this important issue before me, I thank you for laying the groundwork for this quest.

The work of MBA Past President Kay Hodge, specifically the creation of a teen-focused newspaper entitled It's Your Law, was recognized by the American Bar Association. In addition, the Hon. Mark Mason (MBA president 2006-07) is another president who made civics in education a priority during his term by working on various "educating for democracy" objectives. I aim to build on their progress and that of other MBA leaders to once again bring this important cause to the forefront of the MBA's efforts.

On the national stage, our own Michael S. Greco (MBA president, 1985-86) as ABA president (2005-06) named a Commission on Civic Education and Separation of Powers. Greco charged the commission to partner with and otherwise encourage state and local bar associations, other ABA groups and a comprehensive roster of organizations to promote civics education and opportunities for further collaboration between the three branches of government. An outgrowth was Constitution Day 2006, a high-profile event that attracted the likes of retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Over the last several years, Justice O'Connor has promoted increased civics education by extending a call to action across the country. She often cites an Annenberg Public Policy Institute study that revealed that only a little more than one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government. She also references the results that indicate that while two-thirds of Americans know two judges on FOX television's "American Idol," less than one in 10 can name the chief justice of the United States.

"It is the citizens of our nation who have to preserve our system of government and we can't forget it. And the better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be able to do it," said Justice O'Connor while delivering the keynote address at the National Council for the Social Studies Annual Conference in 2008.

Likewise, the Hon. David H. Souter, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, has also been vocal on this important topic. He told state delegates to the ABA at its 2009 annual meeting that "civic education is critical to preserving an independent judiciary."

Greco's efforts as ABA president, as well as those by high-profile advocates like Justices O'Connor and Souter, have made a considerable impression on the national stage. However, there is still much work to be done, nationally and locally. ABA President Stephen N. Zack has committed to this cause of civics education during his current term.
The MBA House of Delegates voted on Sept. 16 to support in principle ABA Resolution No. 110. This well-crafted resolution encourages all lawyers to consider part of their fundamental responsibility to ensure that all students experience high-quality civic learning, including the study of law, government and history.

I call on all members to act in the spirit of this important resolution and advance law-related education in Massachusetts. Whether you are involved in programs in your own communities or whether you lend your time and talent to the MBA's Mock Trial program or other organized initiatives in the schools, every effort makes a difference on this front.

I challenge all of you to be involved and promote civics in education programs and look for more information from me on the MBA's efforts, including during the week of Law Day 2011. The 2011 annual celebration is themed "The Legacy of John Adams, from Boston to Guantanamo," so we as Massachusetts practitioners should be even more inspired to be involved in making educational improvements during our centennial year.

On Sept. 17, this year's Constitution Day commemorated the 223rd anniversary of the signing of our nation's constitution. Let this serve as a reminder of how essential it is for us as attorneys to bridge the era of our founding fathers with the contemporary times by bringing back civics into the education of America's youth.

As Zack recently stressed, "we are uniquely situated as a profession to do something about it."