To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
Access To Justice, Protection Of Due Process And Assaults On The Courts
This is my final column as president of the New York County Lawyers' Association, and I must use it to decry two types of persistent assaults on the courts as an institution.
First is the withdrawal of essential resources. As I write this, Congress is voting on the 2010-2011 budget bill containing draconian belt-tightening measures impacting all three branches of governmentAt the same time, New York State has just cut an additional $70 million out of the budget for the courts in New York, threatening the ability of the courts with which New Yorkers interact to carry on their normal functions, let alone provide representation or help for the indigent. As an attorney and officer of the court, I am deeply troubled by what amount to indirect attacks on the third branch of government, which is ill-equipped to defend itself from legislatures and executives looking for penny-wise but pound-foolish solutions to budgetary crises. Meaningful access to justice and protection of due process rights are at stake when courthouses are shuttered or their functions and efficiency curtailed because of lack of personnel and resources. These rights do not become any less worthy of protection because times are tough; if anything, they become all the more precious and vital as debt-collection abuses, mortgage foreclosures, family breakups and the other consequences of a depressed economy mount.
The federal budget bill slashes funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) by $15.8 million, representing a reduction of 3.8 percent. Last year, the LSC closed nearly one million civil cases, affecting 2.3 million people. A decrease in funding of this magnitude prevents the growing number of low-income families from benefitting from representation when they are faced with the loss of their homes, their financial resources and an array of other significant legal problems. Legal service providers in New York already suffering from cutbacks and reeling under staggering caseloads have to cut back still more programs and eliminate still more legal positions.
In New York City Civil Court, the number of consumer debt filings has hovered around 300,000 for several years. Because of the unexpected additional loss of State funding imposed in 11th-hour compromises where the courts have no real voice, these and other courts have to limit hours of operation or court personnel and discontinue "lawyer for a day" or other programs in which bar associations and their members provide help consistent with their professional responsibilities to assist the needy and assure access to justice for all.
Another kind of attack on the judiciary is more direct but equally deplorable: unfair, misleading and all too often retaliatory or politically motivated media attacks on judges unable to defend themselves. This issue has profound implications for the independence of our courts. Inaccurate or biased portrayals of what the courts do also create public misperceptions, which leave the courts as an institution vulnerable to other steps to curtail their authority or starve them of resources.
NYCLA recognizes the value of good faith, fair criticism of judicial decisions - or of acts of judicial misconduct when they occur. But it is irresponsible to excoriate judges for doing their best to uphold the law and follow established and often statutorily imposed procedures. NYCLA has issued statements to set the record straight in the past and will continue to do so. In fact, we have taken steps to create a permanent mechanism, a Rapid Response Committee, to evaluate media and political attacks and, where appropriate, respond in a timely way. We also plan to take other steps through the media and elsewhere to enhance public understanding of and appreciation for the role of the judiciary and the importance of preserving its independence.
It's been a wonderful, challenging year for me. I know my successor, Stewart Aaron, will remain vigilant in maintaining NYCLA's role as an advocate of equal access to justice, protection of due process and preservation of the independence and integrity of the judiciary.But every lawyer in New York should be his or her own rapid response committee when it comes to funding cuts that prevent the courts from filling their constitutionally mandated function and unfair attacks designed to compromise the independence with which that function must be carried out.
James B. Kobak Jr.