When it comes to access to justice in the United States, we are at a seminal moment in the country with the Black Lives Matter movement, nationwide protests over racial injustice and calls for police reform – and it is a moment that cannot be lost, warned the ACLU’s Jeffrey Robinson during a panel discussion on July 29, the opening day of the 2020 American Bar Association Virtual Annual Meeting.
“This moment in my view is America's last best chance to deal with this problem of inequality in this country,” said the director of the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality in New York City.
Robinson, a criminal defense lawyer since 1981, said his career coincided with the largest increase in incarceration in the history of the country. “If we do nothing else about the inequality in this country, then people that look like me will just refill those jails right back up again.”
Robinson was among three other lawyers on the frontline of U.S. civil legal aid and public defense who discussed efforts to bridge the ever-widening justice gap at the CLE Showcase Program “What Will the Next 100 Years Hold for Access to Justice? ”
The ACLU director was joined by two law professors, Rebecca Sandefur of Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. who also is a faculty fellow at the American Bar Foundation, where she founded and leads the Access to Justice Research Initiative; and Peter Edelman of Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C.
Both Edelman and Sandefur agreed that the country is at a defining moment that could bring about landmark changes in the judicial system, particularly for those who cannot afford legal services.
According to Edelman, the key to that change involves mobilizing today’s protesters and broadening their message. “We should be emphasizing to young people that we have an opportunity right now,” he said. “They are out protesting after this terrible, terrible murder that took place. The problem is much bigger than perhaps some police reforms.’
“We have a responsibility to deal with the entire question of justice – not just in the courts and police reform,” he said, noting that 80% of the civil legal needs of the eligible population are not being met.
Beyond the ongoing protests around the country, the pandemic also may provide an opportunity to move the needle on access to justice.
Edelman said that out of the tragedy of COVID-19, courts that have been resistant or slow to change now see that things can be done differently and done outside of the building, which he said “might help to get to the people who don’t get to the building [courthouse] at all.”
When these systemic changes happen, Sandefur believes they should be led by the people served by those systems, and a reimagining of the justice system should involve the communities and individuals that have historically been totally shut out of the conversation about what the laws should be.
It’s about legal empowerment, Sandefur explained. “This is their justice system. It is not the lawyers’ justice system. It is not judges’ justice system.”
But “how can we find ways to help people engage in ways that help them get what we have said they should get?” she asked.
Said Robinson: “I believe a majority of people in this country can be moved by fact. And there are verifiable, undeniable facts that people can read, rely on and understand.
“We cannot move forward in any intelligent way [just] talking about ‘defund the police,’ ‘cut police departments in half,’” he continued, saying that a better understanding of the systems being dismantled is also vital.
“I think it is a matter of informing ourselves about how we got here. And then having faith that most Americans don't want to live in a country that's racist and unfair and unequitable. I sure hope that's right.”
“What Will the Next 100 Years Hold for Access to Justice? ” was sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.
Lauren Sudeall, faculty director of the Center of Access to Justice at Georgia State Law School in Atlanta, moderated the session.