New year, new strategies

Issue January 2014 By Douglas K. Sheff

For the judges in our court system, 2014 is indeed a happy new year, thanks to their long-awaited judicial pay raise, which goes into effect this year. As members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, we can also take pride in the MBA's longstanding support, which helped push through this well-deserved increase. But we cannot sit on our laurels. Court funding and funding for legal aid remains a critical issue, despite our recent success.

Later this month we will once again "Walk to the Hill" in support of civil legal aid. I encourage you to join us on Jan. 30, for one of the largest lobbying events in the commonwealth, where hundreds of lawyers will fill the Great Hall at the State House to request more funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.

In the spirit of this important annual tradition, I'm pleased to launch a new program, which I call "12 for 12," where we will invite the public to be allies in our annual call for court funding. We will ask 12,000 lawyers to ask 12 of their clients to send letters to their elected representatives requesting increased legal aid and support for our courts. Once the governor announces his budget proposal we have a critical 12-week period to make our voices heard before the House and Senate take up their budget deliberations. That's why we're acting now. The MBA will provide the background information and resources for you and your clients this month. I'm asking you to help us get the word out.

"12 for 12" is a new strategy for a new landscape. While lawyers, especially those of us at the MBA, have a history of speaking up for the courts and legal aid, today we face the reality of a different kind of Legislature, where lawyers no longer dominate the ranks of our elected officials. By getting our clients involved, "12 for 12" will send a strong message that court funding and funding for legal aid are not just lawyer issues, they are issues that touch everyday citizens - their constituents.

Many people aren't aware that they need effective courts until they need an effective court, but we understand that this is an ongoing, systemic problem. It impacts public hours and staffing levels, whether you're someone who needs to resolve a dispute or someone looking to file an important document to protect your family. And funding for civil legal aid directly impacts access to justice for the people in our communities who need it most: victims of domestic violence, the elderly and infirmed, the homeless and others who are often lost without free legal representation. Once we explain to our clients the importance of having swift and effective courts and equal access to justice, we can harness the power of their collective voices and highlight the strong public need for proper funding.

Not only do courts need more funding, so do many of the people who keep them running, especially in our criminal justice system. That's why last month I also appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to study how low salaries for prosecutors and public defenders are impacting our courts - the first since the MBA's "Callahan Report" in 1994. I am grateful to Past MBA President Richard Campbell, who has agreed to chair this important undertaking, which also features some of the brightest minds from government, law and business.

Thanks to our unwavering advocacy, our court system is well on the way to recovery. But it's still not where it needs to be. I firmly believe that if you don't get your desired result, you must keep trying new approaches until you achieve your goal. "12 for 12" and our Blue Ribbon Commission are part of this new thinking.

We will have a properly funded court system that reflects its importance in the commonwealth. And we won't stop working for it until we do.