“No Courts – No Justice – No Freedom”

2012 ABA Midyear Meeting

New Orleans

February 6, 2012

 

Remarks by Chief Judge Eric Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals

President, Conference of Chief Justices

Chair, National Center for State Courts

 

Thank you, Madame Chair, for recognizing me on behalf of the CCJ. I would also like to thank President Bill Robinson and President Elect Laurel Bellows for allowing me to address you this morning.  Finally, I would like to acknowledge the presence of my good friend,  Rosalyn Frierson, president of the Conference of State Court Administrators and a House of Delegates member from South Carolina. Together we serve as the chair and vice-chair of the Board of Directors of the NCSC.


This is the fourth consecutive year that you have invited the president of the CCJ to address you -- and in so doing, you honor the importance of our collaboration with the ABA to address issues that are vital to the strength of America's state courts.  While our issues are as critical today and they were four years ago, I am pleased to report that our partnership has grown stronger, gained momentum and is truly making a difference.


In fact, we, the CCJ and the ABA, along with the COSCA and the NCSC, have been working hand in hand for the last several months to develop standards for language access in the courts, a promise I made to all of you when we met last August in Toronto.   While members of our working group didn't always agree, both sides listened to the others concerns, and worked in good faith to resolve our differences knowing that we shared the common goal of establishing language-access standards that would provide equal access to justice for persons with limited English proficiency.  And today, I’m happy to announce that the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and the National Center for State Courts wholeheartedly endorse ABA Resolution 113, and call for its immediate passage.   I want to especially thank the leadership of SCLAID, and the leadership  of the ABA’s Language Access Project Steering Committee, for their willingness to work with us to address this very important but difficult issue.


And, in keeping with our longstanding leadership on the issue of language access, I want you to know that the CCJ and COSCA will be holding a Language Access Summit in October of this year where we will bring together teams of executive, legislative, and judicial branch representatives to try and assess government-wide needs for language services and develop court-specific plans to address this important issue.


But as you know, working on language access is just the latest example of our collaborative efforts to improve the administration of justice in our state courts.  This is by design because the  common bond that links the ABA and the CCJ was struck centuries ago, before either organization was established, when the founders embraced judicial independence as a cornerstone of our democratic republic -- a cornerstone that continues to serve as a model for courts around the world.  When former ABA president Steve Zack discovered how chronic underfunding of our state courts threatened the preservation of the American justice system and judicial independence, he enlisted a group of our nation’s most respected lawyers, lead by David Boies and Ted Olson, to champion not only fair funding for state courts but also to reaffirm the ABA’s commitment to the rule of law. Partnering in those efforts, ABA president Bill Robinson effectively took the baton and continued the race, tirelessly cris-crossing the country to advance the societal imperative that our state courts be fully and fairly funded.  And, it is our understanding that Ppresident-Elect Laurel Bellows has announced that she also will bring her energy and passion to bear on this very important initiative.  Their efforts, as well as the efforts of so many of you sitting here today, have put the severity of the court funding crisis in the national headlines and with the continuity of commitment we have enjoyed from the leadership of the ABA, we cannot help but feel confident that our position will ultimately prevail.


But we must be mindful of the fact that in the meantime, efforts are underway that could undermine the ability of some courts to enforce the rule of law. These efforts include eliminating court jurisdiction; ignoring State Supreme Court constitutional decisions that have financial implications;   curtailing judicial review of election procedures or redistricting plans and threatening to haul judges before legislative bodies to explain unpopular judicial decisions.  We must be vigilant not to let the difficult fiscal circumstances in which we find ourselves be used as convenient cover to diminish and restrict constitutional protections.


Last week, Vice President Joe Biden addressed the CCJ and observed that “the thing we call American Exceptionalism does exist and that the truly exceptional aspect of our American democracy is our deep commitment to the rule of law in our courts.”  He went on to say that "until nations embrace the rule of law where a business can be sure that its intellectual property will be protected and its citizens are free to speak their minds, those nations will never fully realize their true potential.”  I think we can all agree that the protections provided by the us court system, especially state courts where over 95 percent of justice in America is performed, is what makes it possible for our citizens to innovate and enjoy the fruits of their labor while protecting the rights of others. That is truly exceptional and must be protected at all costs.


But protecting that exceptionalism requires more than just money, it requires an understanding of the proper role of the courts, and this is a challenge for all of us because in this information age where any and everyone can make their opinions known through blogging on the Internet, and the lines between fact and opinion have in some cases been blurred beyond recognition, the decision by many educators to ignore civics as part of a school’s core curriculum puts our courts in a perilous position.  That is especially the case when the judiciary is being villlified for not acting like the other branches of government and deciding cases based on prevailing public sentiment as opposed to the Rule of Law.  CCJ and COSCA are very concerned about this misunderstanding of the court’s role in our democracy and are taking steps to fill this void.  State court leaders across the country are investing their time and resources in developing, supporting, and delivering innovative civics education programs to both young people and adults in our communities.  In South Carolina, Chief Justice Jean Toal played a major role in the state becoming the pilot for Justice O’Connor’s iCivics Web-based program in their schools.  Chief Justice Toal also has established a judicial education institute and has hired a master teacher to develop a supplemental curriculum that can be used to train others to teach civics.  

 

Here in Louisiana, Chief Justice Kitty Kimball, with the help and support of the bar, has established the Louisiana Center for Law and Civics Education.  It is a nonprofit organization that coordinates, implements, and develops law and civics-education programs; trains educators on how to teach civics-education programs; and assists with the delivery of law and civics-education programs throughout the state. 


And even in Washington, D.C., the courts have partnered with young lawyers to work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington and various charter schools to teach ethics using graphic novels developed by the National Center for State Courts and Justice O’Connor's iCivics curriculum.   And these are just a few examples of the creative civic education initiatives that are being started throughout the country and are being championed by state court leaders.  This summer during the annual meeting of CCJ and COSCA, we will be holding a civics fair so that we can become even better acquainted with the variety of offerings that are available.  We recognize that the ABA and its affiliated organizations have been leaders in this regard and that civics education remains an ABA priority.  Like court funding and language access, we look forward to working closely with you on civic education initiatives in the future.


President Robinson's theme for Law Day 2012 could not be more timely and echoes the message that Vice President iden brought to the  midyear meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices.
No courts, no justice, no freedom.  


Much has been accomplished.


Much remains to be done.


But today, I just want to thank you for all you are doing to promote the fair administration of justice and to preserve American Exceptionalism by protecting the courts and the Rule of Law. 

 

Thank you.