State courts are largely responsible for administering the justice that is so important to us as future lawyers and as American citizens. The ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence is working to ensure that state courts continue to fulfill this role, especially in light of recent attacks.
Large budget cuts have reduced the ability of state courts to tackle already overburdened dockets. As an August 17, 2011, New York Times Opinion piece (“Threadbare American Justice”) states, “State courts, which handle a vast majority of civil and criminal cases, are in a state of crisis . . . [with] long delays and a denial of basic access to justice . . . As they cut spending on the courts, state legislatures are degrading public safety by delaying the resolution of criminal cases; hurting vulnerable populations like children and the elderly, who need the courts’ protection [especially in guardianship cases]; and damaging our system of government by weakening the judiciary.”
Add the list of presidential candidates calling to weaken our third branch of government, and there is indeed a crisis. In fact, some candidates have proposed preventing the judiciary from hearing controversial legal topics while others want to give Congress the authority to overturn unpopular court rulings.
A possible solution is to implement outreach efforts with state legislatures. The committee has also considered media and public relations campaigns to increase public awareness of the issue.
Other committee projects include establishing “universal” standards for judicial disqualification/recusal, campaign finance for judicial elections, and methods for evaluating elected judges. Because the majority of states have elected judges, it is important that campaign fund-raising does not affect judicial impartiality. Such conflicts of interest can be monitored through guidelines for judicial disqualification, laws governing judicial campaign financing, and some reporting mechanism allowing both local attorneys and the public to rate the “fairness” of a particular judge.
The Standing Committee on Judicial Independence is engaged in many exciting projects this year, all geared toward promoting the universal goal of justice. Law students are welcome to read more about the committee’s projects and get involved! Please visit the website for more information.