William R. Bay is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services and a partner in the St. Louis office of Thompson Coburn LLP.
Just before my oldest child entered first grade, we found the house we wanted. It had the space we needed, inside and out. The location was good. The schools were good. But it had been lived in hard. We figured we could make do until we had more money to renovate. So we bought it. That was 19 years ago.
There were many things that didn’t go as planned that first year. The furnace and air conditioning conked out. A roof had to be replaced. We had to dig up the basement floor with a jackhammer. It was an adventure. And it all had to be fixed.
Then we started on the home improvements we had envisioned. Every part of the house has now been redone with one exception: the area where we spend time every day—our bedroom and bathroom. It has worn-out carpet, a problem shower, a faucet that drips. I don’t notice them anymore. My wife does.
This part of the house desperately needs renovating. But it’s hard to find the resources. It always seems like an-other priority intervenes. This year, it’s been a plumbing leak and a new roof. There is always something more pressing. Something important. Something that needs fixing. So we put off confronting and dealing with the issue of renovating the space. It’s a difficult problem at my house—maybe at your house, too.
It reminds me of the debate about adequate funds for our judicial system. As lawyers, it’s where we spend most of our time. In courts. Avoiding courts. Dealing with clients who will be in court. There is never enough money al-located for judges, court personnel, prosecutors, public defenders, needed court renovations and improvements. So we endure inadequate salaries and staffing, layoffs and furlough days, and courthouses that must limit the days they are open. You know what I’m talking about. It’s frustrating, and we have come to accept it.
There are many demands for our tax dollars. Worthy programs. Worthy projects. Well-spent dollars. But it’s still not fixing the places where we spend our time—the courts. This isn’t just a personal request that benefits lawyers. Our courts are a coequal branch of the government. They are the protector of our liberties, our lives, and our free-doms, and the arena for the redress of grievances. Old words, but still relevant to the pressing needs and concerns in every corner of our country.
We have spent more than 200 years living in our judicial system, “our house.” It’s a great place, but its unmet fi-nancial needs have grown over time. We know the problem. We hear about it. We read about it. It’s a priority. But like the work needed at my house, it doesn’t get done. Resources are scarce. The needs are pressing elsewhere. The truth is, our collective patience should have run out long ago.
We need to make adequate funding our priority to ensure that access to justice is available to all. It is the only way we can guarantee our citizens will find a judicial system with the resources necessary to meet the challenges and needs of those it serves—“we, the people.”
At my house, we have waited a long time to act. But change is coming this year. Now, it’s time for some home improvements at the place where we work—our court system. It’s time we as a profession and as bar leaders speak with one strong, unified voice to advocate for adequate funding for all our courts. It’s our first priority.