American Bar Association President Bill Robinson visited Chattanooga on Thursday and met with the Times Free Press editorial board.
He answered questions and shared some of the association's policies on problems the courts and attorneys face nationwide.
Based in Florence, Ky., Robinson took over as ABA president in August and said his main focus is to continue the work his predecessor began in dealing with financial troubles that court systems face.
Q: There's been talk in legal circles and some national news outlets about a "crisis" in courts funding. What are the ABA's concerns about this?
A: Forty out of 50 states slashed court funding just this last year. Tennessee, out of a $30.2 billion operating budget, is allocating $116 million to the courts. That's 0.3 percent of the overall operating budget, and we're talking about one of the co-equal branches of the government. There was a 15 percent cut last year [in Tennessee] and a 6 percent cut this year.
The most any state in the country funds any courts system is 3 percent of the overall operating budget; that's how bad the situation has gotten nationally. Three percent is totally inadequate. Courts are treated like a park, a road, another capital project in the state. Not as a co-equal branch of government.
Q: How do these cuts touch residents who may not use the courts regularly?
A: It's like an emergency room. You don't need it all the time. But when we do need it, we want it to be open. We want things to go well when we're taken there because we need it at the time and we need it right away. Well, a courtroom is no different. Our first challenge is to go out and get the public to wake up that we have an inadequate level of funding in our courts nationally.
Lawyers like to say justice delayed is justice denied. When you're a woman in a home where there is violence, drug use and you can't get a remedy in court, if you can't get a restraining order, where does a person turn? If you're a small business owner and one of your employees has walked away with your customer list and you've got a noncompete clause and you can't get anyone enforcing that, what do you do? The courts have got to be there so that contracts are enforced, property rights are protected.
Q: Many reports say that qualified law school graduates are not able to find work. What has the ABA seen in this area?
A: One editorial we see one day says we have too many lawyers and we're not generating enough opportunity for those lawyers.
Another editorial another day says we do not have enough lawyers and there aren't enough lawyers out there to meet the legal need.
It's a big, big challenge for us. We have a tremendous need for legal representation out there that's being unmet. And that challenges us as a society, as a country, as a profession how to match those up.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...