|Susan Anderson is chair of the Access to Justice Section Council and chief hearing officer for the Division of Insurance. The views expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of her employer.
"Our popular government has often been called an experiment. . . . We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility."
Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message
to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862.
We continue to face challenging times, as a nation, and within this commonwealth. Our weakened economy has meant and will continue to mean hardship for many. It is critical that the foundation of our democratic system - that we are a nation of laws, with access to justice for all - be protected. As lawyers, we bear a special responsibility to our system of justice. Although these challenges can seem overwhelming, it is heartening to remind ourselves of all that this association and its members have done and continue to do to meet these challenges. It is also important to keep in mind how small measures can combine to produce significant results.
In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts IOLTA Committee and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation use the interest on lawyers' trust accounts - interest amounts that would be smaller than the cost of establishing and maintaining an account for the benefit of the client - to fund programs that serve clients throughout the state. Although each IOLTA deposit earns only a very small amount of interest, collectively this interest is significant, and substantially improves the access to civil legal services.
There was good news this spring. On March 26, in Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the use of IOLTA funds to fund legal services for the poor does not violate the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens stated, " . . . the overall, dramatic success of these programs in serving the compelling interest in providing legal services to literally millions of needy Americans certainly qualifies the Foundation's distribution of these funds as a 'public use' within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment."
As lawyers understand all too well, few of the people who need legal assistance ever anticipated that they would need a lawyer's services. In these very difficult fiscal times, the MBA has again taken the lead in urging that funding for civil legal services, and for services for appointed counsel, be sustained to the extent possible. Every voice counts, and as lawyers we have a special duty to ensure that our judicial system is fully functioning and accessible to all.
The MBA-sponsored Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis offers another means to educate the voting public about the foundation and development of our system of laws. I urge you to add one more item to your calendar. Even if your practice does not allow you to take on one additional case, you can volunteer to spend an hour with a class of high school students. I assure you the time will be well spent.