Austin American Statesman | By Editorial Board
There are some lucky souls out there whose only contact with the justice system will be watching “Law and Order” episodes in syndication. But if circumstances toss you off the couch and into the cold and confusing world of the Texas courts system, the experience will sharpen your appreciation for the content of Wallace Jefferson’s State of the Judiciary speech.
Jefferson, the state Supreme Court’s chief justice, delivers a report on the state of the judiciary to the Legislature every two years. Just because the chief justice’s remarks don’t get a lot of ink doesn’t shrink their significance. Some of his recommendations — like making the courts more accessible to middle-class Texans — can be addressed quickly. Others, like changing the way judges are selected or establishing an innocence commission, are going to take a while, the chief justice conceded in a telephone interview this week.
The innocence commission might get some traction given the publicity generated by the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton. Morton spent 25 years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife in their Williamson County home. DNA tests later exonerated Morton, and another man has been indicted in Christine Morton’s death.
It’s needed reform that Jefferson has urged previously, just as he and his predecessors have recommended changing the way Texas judges are selected. A bill that would hold prosecutors accountable in wrongful conviction cases is being considered by the Senate. A judicial selection bill … well, that’s reminiscent of a World War II Army unit’s slogan: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little while.”
On other issues, Jefferson’s comments also had a familiar tenor to them. The overarching themes of fairness, access and public confidence don’t really change, though Jefferson repeated a call for reform he sounded in 2011.
“The increasing inaccessibility of legal services — for the poor, for even the middle class — undermines the rule of law for us all,” Jefferson said in the 2011 State of the Judiciary address.
Sounding that theme again, Jefferson said, “Access to justice is about more than giving a poor person a lawyer. An accessible justice system requires that even broader segments of our society be able to use it, including those that are forced to navigate the judicial system alone. Our remedies must be expansive and creative. We must change the way we do business in our courts to meet the needs of all citizens and businesses while at the same time improving customer service, increasing transparency and investing in technology to decrease costs and increase efficiency. We must develop a judicial climate in which people who lack money to hire a lawyer have a reasonable chance to vindicate their rights.”
There are plenty of critics who will lay the blame on tort reform measures adopted earlier in the decade for cutting off access to the courts. In his comments to a Legislature friendly to tort reform, Jefferson cited the high costs of taking a case to court as a hurdle middle-class Texans can’t jump.
“Eligibility for legal aid is generally capped at 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines,” Jefferson said in remarks last week to the Legislature. “A family of four with an income of $30,000 does not qualify. After that family pays for shelter, sustenance, and the other necessities of daily life, it cannot possibly afford a lawyer for the most basic legal necessities of life. The most generous legal aid programs limit eligibility to those within 200 percent of federal poverty levels, meaning that a four-person household with income over $46,100 does not qualify.”
Streamlining court procedures to allow people to represent themselves in simple cases would broaden access to Texas courts. “The Supreme Court recently approved forms that litigants may use when seeking an uncontested divorce involving no children and no real property. Forty-eight states have court-approved family-law forms. Of the thirty-seven states that have forms for divorce proceedings, all have reported a positive impact on the overall efficiency of those cases,” Jefferson said.
Family law lawyers aren’t fond of do-it-yourself divorces, and Jefferson said in the interview that he will be monitoring the session closely for bills that would restrict the use of family forms.
The Legislature committed $20 million in general revenue in 2009 to help poor people with lawyer fees in civil cases and another $17 million in the previous session. The money augments funds collected from interest on lawyers’ trust accounts — which have plummeted along with interest rates.
All that helps, but as Jefferson noted in his speech: “But even if we were to require every Texas lawyer to represent at least one indigent client, we would serve less than 40 percent of the poor who seek help. We must do more, not to preserve the judiciary, but to keep the courthouse doors open for all of our neighbors.”
Keeping the courts accessible is essential to a society that calls itself democratic. It’s difficult, granted, but streamlining and simplifying court procedures to maintain that access is a vital mission — one that always has to be done immediately.