Access to Justice

  • October 9, 2012

    By Jeremy Leaming

    Special interests are ratcheting up their efforts to influence the make-up of state courts, which handle the bulk of the country’s legal actions. These special interests, in large part, are riled over certain rulings of state courts in Iowa, Florida and a string of others, and willing to spend boatloads of money to change those courts. 

    Recently this blog noted the 2010 effort by Christian rightists to unseat Iowa Supreme Court justices for their involvement in a 2009 opinion that invalidated a law barring same-sex marriage. (In Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa higher court said the law violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.) The effort was led by groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and other religious groups bent on demonizing the LGBT community, in part by opposing equality efforts. That effort was successful in removing three of the Iowa State Supreme Court justices, and some of those same groups are gunning for another justice involved in the Varnum majority – Justice David Wiggins. The New York Times blasted the effort to oust Wiggins in a so-called retention vote on Election Day as a “battle over the future of a fair and independent judiciary.” The Times’ editorial went on to state that retention votes were meant to remove judges from the bench because of corruption or incompetence, not because of unpopular rulings.

    In a panel discussion organized by Justice at Stake for this year’s Lavender Law conference, several of the panelists noted that state judges who have issued rulings in favor of marriage equality have often been the target of efforts to yank them from the bench. Lambda Legal’s Eric Lesh said courts nationwide “face real threats from well-funded, special interest groups that seek to politicize our judiciary and undermine the integrity of our justice system.”

    It’s not just state court opinions advancing equality that are triggering threats to state courts.

  • October 3, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Roberts Court is a tool of corporate America. At least that’s the gist of a new film from Alliance for Justice, called “Unequal Justice: The Relentless Rise of the 1% Court.”

    This of course is not news to those who pay attention to what the Supreme Court does, nor is it agreed upon. For instance the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Chamber of Commerce likely see the Roberts Court as a protector of American capitalism – the place where almost anyone can lift themselves up by their bootstraps to become superrich.

    “The Roberts Court is basically a pro-business court,” Stanford Law School Professor and ACS Board member Pamela Karlan, says in the AFJ film. “They don’t have a desire to really open the federal courts up to suits by average Americans, either workers or consumers, or people who are injured by various products; it’s a pro-business court.” (Watch the film here or view below.)

    The film reminds us of the Court’s opinions that shut down a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retail giant Wal-Mart, overturned a woman’s lower court verdict against a company for years of gender discrimination, and found that corporate America has even more power to spend boatloads of money to sway elections.

    “The Citizens United’s impact has been dramatic,” says former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold and founder of Progressives United. “And since then our system is in the worst free-fall it’s been in since the Gilded Age, probably worse.”

    Even former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a rightwing policymaker, weighed in on blasting Citizens United as one of the most “misguided, naïve, uniformed, egregious decisions of the United States Supreme Court, I think in the 21st Century.”

    Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation and narrator of the 20-minute film, said individuals have been shut out of the justice system by today’s Supreme Court, which “has decided that when everyday people run up against powerful corporate interests, the big corporations almost always win.”

    Some of the women behind the class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart explain their efforts to advance equality and deal with a stinging defeat.

    “The women of Wal-Mart brought the case to stand up for their right to be treated equally, but they never got that far,” Heuvel said. “The decision turned on whether their claims had enough in common. The conservative majority raised the hurdle for class actions, and made it harder to prove discrimination.”

  • September 25, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Join Senator Shaheen on Facebook at and Twitter @SenatorShaheen

    Serving as a juror is one of our most basic civic responsibilities, and one of the few obligations every citizen shares. Unfortunately, members of the LGBT community are not protected from discrimination during jury selection. I have introduced a bill to change that.

    The Jury ACCESS Act (Access for Capable Citizens and Equality in Service Selection) would make it illegal to eliminate a potential juror during federal jury selection based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  I’m pleased to be introducing this important bill with my colleagues Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). 

    As we look back at history, women were systemically excluded from jury service until the 20th century as were racial minorities and the working poor. 

    We now have explicit protections in place to prevent striking jurors on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin and economic status. The question really is: how is it that in 2012 members of the LGBT community are not included on this list? 

    Unfortunately, we cannot legislate away the prejudices that people hold. But we must always look for ways to advance equality in our own lives. Often this means talking with our friends, our families, our neighbors who might disagree with us. Acceptance and understanding are learned traits, and we can all lead by example.

  • September 25, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Alan W. Houseman, Executive Director, CLASP (the Center for Law and Social Policy)

    Civil legal aid helps low-income people navigate various civil matters like housing evictions, home foreclosures, predatory lending, child support, and domestic violence. It also helps people access government benefits like Social Security, disability, unemployment insurance, food stamps, TANF and health insurance. Without the services of a lawyer, low-income people with civil-legal problems may have no practical way of protecting their rights and advancing their interests.

    Civil legal aid in the United States is provided by approximately 500 independent, staff-based service providers, including 135 programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).  These programs are non-profit entities that deliver civil legal aid by full-time attorneys and paralegals who provide advice, brief service, court and hearing representation, community legal education, economic and community development, and policy advocacy. 

    These core providers are supplemented by approximately 900 pro bono programs affiliated with state and local bar associations, over 200 law school clinical programs and several hundred self-help programs. 

    Total funding for civil legal aid is approximately $1,375,000,000. Funding comes from a variety of sources. The largest single funder is LSC. However, state sources provide the largest amount of overall funding. These include increases in filing fees, general revenue appropriations and Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA). (IOLTA programs distribute the pooled interest of client trust funds to civil legal aid programs and other access-to-justice initiatives. Client trust funds contain short-term deposits of clients held by lawyers in interest-bearing accounts, which are used to pay court fees, settlement payments, and similar client needs.)

  • September 20, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Republicans keeping to their obstructionist ways blocked an effort by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid to force votes on 17 district court nominations that have languished in the chamber.

    Obstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominations has been ongoing since the start of his first term, and the federal bench has a record number of vacancies, more than 80. Sen. Reid had called for unanimous consent to secure confirmation votes for 17 district court nominations. “There are places around the country where we have judges who are tremendously overworked on these cases,” Reid said.

    But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell objected to the move, claiming the president has been treated fairly.

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who has consistently called out Republicans’ obstruction of the president’s judicial selections, decried today’s action.

    Leahy noted that Obama’s predecessors did not face this kind of trouble appointing judges to the federal bench, especially district court judges.

    “However,” Leahy said in a press statement, “Senate Republicans have raised the level of partisanship so that these Federal trial court nominees have now become wrapped around the axle of partisanship. Despite a vacancy crisis that threatens the ability of Federal courts to provide justice for the American people, Senate Republicans now refuse to allow a vote on any of the 17 pending district court nominees, including 12 that have been declared judicial emergency vacancies.”