Former Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, reflecting on her early
years as a citizen in South Africa, uses a metaphor to explain the
importance of the rule of law. "When you are breathing oxygen, you
don't notice it; when you cut off the supply, you will notice it
Professor "Mo" Cunningham, the renowned scholar and chairman of
the Political Science Department at the University of Massachusetts
Boston (and a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney),
paraphrasing President Abraham Lincoln's comments at a time when
the rule of law was crumbling, instructs us that "our political
religion must respect the law" and our judicial system or "society
will come crumbling down."
With dysfunctional courts, he warns, "we are going to reach that
point." And, serving as the apostle of the obvious, Cunningham
tells us that "there is a point where you just can't tighten your
belt any longer, we're at it right now."
For most of us, the American judicial system has been one of the
few constants throughout our lives. Courts and the judges who sit
in them have been models of stability, equipoise and scholarship.
When political leaders like Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus prohibited
African-American children from entering Central High School in
Little Rock or Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett and the trustees of
the University of Mississippi blocked James Meredith from
matriculating, our courts and judges righted those wrongs.
When captains of industry, like the CEOs of WorldCom, Enron, Tyco
and Global Crossing, crossed the boundary of proper business
conduct and engaged in criminality, our courts and judges removed
them from their corporate suites and provided alternate, supervised
housing for them. Revolutionaries, like Raymond Luc Levasseur,
could not destroy our system of justice by detonating bombs in our
courthouses; the business of the courts continued without fear. The
day-to-day enforcement of criminal and civil laws has always gone
forth quietly, surely and swiftly, promoting great predictability
to our lives.
Most of us never step back and ask ourselves what "the rule of
law" means; and few of us, if any, ever consider it at risk. But
what would happen if the rule of law in this country simply
What would the evil, violent people in our midst do if there were
no courts? Would they take advantage? Would we be safe in our homes
and communities? How about the captains of industry? Would they
cheat and steal from us? Could we trust our landlords or bankers?
Would our children and incomes be secure from estranged
The foundation of the rule of law in the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts is full, adequate public financial support for the
courts. But the truth of the matter is the public (and our elected
officials) do not properly support the courts. As a result, the law
economy is crumbling all about us. Courts are closing; judges are
retiring early; support staff are laid off or just not
The most important point for all stakeholders to note as they
ponder the decline in the law economy is the erosion in the rule of
law, and with it, the decline in the quality of life in the
Images from Syria, Libya and Somalia show us the ugly face of
lawlessness. Murder is common in Ciudad Juarez, barely across the
Texas border. Kidnappings for ransoms are now said to be common in
Professor Cunningham points out to us that the citizens of the
commonwealth interact with the courts much more than the other two
branches of government, and warns that, if the courts fall apart,
even the best of our citizens will lose faith in our system. Lack
of respect for the rule of law, he says, presents "a great danger
By underfunding the justice system, we put at risk the way in
which we live our lives, and with it, our hopes and dreams for
ourselves and our children and grandchildren.
"Without courts, no justice -- no freedom. That's what it comes
down to," says Bill Robinson, president of the American Bar
Association. "And it's true," says Denise Squillante, immediate
past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
By the time this edition of Lawyers Journal is published,
Gov. Deval Patrick should have released his proposed FY2013 budget.
The House of Representatives, and then the Senate, begin their
budget debates in April and May, respectively. You can make a
difference by contacting your state senators and representatives
and demanding a fully funded judicial system. This may be the most
important public service you will ever render in your career. Your
family, friends, neighbors and communities need you. Get on it.