Justice for All: A Fundamental Responsibility of Our Government and Our Legal Community’s Responsibility to Hold Them to It

CBF Report September 2015

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By Angela Inzano | CBF Program Manager

Liberty and justice for all is one of America’s most cherished principles, and a fundamental part of the very fabric of our nation. Our founding fathers fought a revolution for it. Thousands of brave men and women since then€“from Abraham Lincoln to Susan B. Anthony to Martin Luther King and all who fought with them€“risked their lives to ensure that the principle of justice for all truly applied to all Americans.

Justice for all knows no political exclusivity. It is not a Democratic or Republican value, but an American value. At the opening of each and every session of this Senate, we stand together and pledge our allegiance to this founding principle. Millions of schoolchildren pledge their allegiance every day to this fundamental tenet of our country.

Yet today in Illinois and throughout the United States, we are falling far short of fulfilling our nation’s promise of €˜justice for all.’

Our Common Cause

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a long time champion for equal access to justice, made these remarks as part of a Senate floor debate in 2006. They are still true today.

The CBF’s mission recognizes that as trustees of the justice system, lawyers have a responsibility to take a lead role in ensuring that system is fair, accessible, and efficient for everyone, not just people who can afford to hire an attorney. As the CBF’s new Justice Pledge (see page 17) underscores, fulfilling that responsibility requires us to use a mix of our time, money, and influence for the fundamental principle of equal justice under the law to become a reality for everyone in our community.

One way that all of us as CBA members can use our influence in this regard is by contacting your elected officials on access to justice issues. The CBF is your central resource for information on key policy issues impacting access to justice and how you can help. (Check out the text box at the left for how you can sign up for advocacy updates and alerts). Legislators don’t hear much from their constituents on access to justice issues, and you make a real difference when you let them know these issues are important to you and your community.

Your support of the CBF also gives you a vehicle to come together with your colleagues in the CBA and larger legal community to speak with one powerful, collective voice on these issues with the federal, state, and local government. The CBF staff and volunteers work closely with the CBA’s legislative counsel and staff as well as the ISBA, ABA, and other local and national partner organizations to provide a consistent voice on these issues.

Key issues the CBF regularly prioritizes at all levels of government are funding for legal aid and the courts, and loan forgiveness and repayment assistance for lawyers and advocates in public service. The CBF also advocates on a range of other issues that significantly impact access to justice, and these collective efforts have made a real impact over the years.

Two recent examples of where your advocacy, individually and through the CBF, made an impact on the state level this past year were the passage of key amendments to the Access to Justice Act and a new law requiring civics education for high school students.

Access to Justice Act

Originally passed in 2013 with broad bipartisan support, the Access to Justice Act created a pilot program to develop and support a much-needed hotline and network of legal assistance to help thousands of veterans and military families in need throughout the state. Due to a technical problem identified after the original version of the Access to Justice Act had been signed into law, the implementation of this pilot program was on hold.

ABA Day 2015

Representatives from the CBF, CBA, ABA and ISBA meet with Sen. Durbin and Sen. Mark Kirk to advocate on access to justice issues at the annual ABA Day in Washington.

One of the CBA and CBF’s main advocacy priorities this year was to help pass a legislative fix for this technical problem so the pilot program could proceed.With the leadership of Representatives Emily McAsey and Al Riley and Senator Kwame Raoul, the bill to provide that technical fix, HB 3933, passed theHouse and Senate by unanimous votes and was signed into law by Governor Rauner in August. The pilot program will be designed, evaluated and overseen by a special statutorily created council that will operate under the auspices of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF). The five-year program will be funded by a temporary $2 add-on to civil filing fees that will sunset at the conclusion of the pilot program in 2020.

This innovative new program already has been touted as a potential national model for providing critical legal services to the men and women who have served our country. By providing this much-needed legal help for thousands of people in need, the new program will make the justice system in Illinois more fair, accessible and efficient for all Illinoisans.

Civics Education Bill

In 2014, the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education, established by the legislature to study the status of civic education in our state and make recommendations on how to improve it, found a strong need to strengthen civic education in Illinois. At that time, Illinois was one of just 10 states in the country that did not require a civics or government course to graduate from high school.

HB 4025 grew out of these efforts, and strengthens civics education in Illinois and promotes greater civic learning through a required civics course for all Illinois high school students. The CBF made supporting this bill one of our advocacy priorities this year because it will promote greater understanding of the role and functioning of the justice system in our democracy, an important component of the CBF’s broader efforts to make the legal system more fair and accessible for people in need. The Illinois Civic Mission Coalition played the lead role in this legislative effort, and the CBF was one of dozens of organizations to support the bill. The bill passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Governor Rauner last month. Beginning in the Fall of 2016, a semester of hands-on civics education will be part of the required core curriculum for high school graduation in Illinois.

These bills are just two examples of the impact you can make both individually and through the CBF in the policy advocacy process. It is easy to get involved and our leadership as a legal community in advocating on these issues has never been more important.

[panel background=”#003A63″ color=”#FFCF82″ shadow=”4px 4px 2px #eeeeee” radius=”6″ text_align=”center”]For more information on how you can get involved in legislative advocacy on behalf of access to justice, and to sign up for CBF advocacy updates and alerts, visit www.chicagobarfoundation.org/get-involved/influence or contact Angela Inzano, CBF Program Manager, at ainzano@chicagobar.org or 312/554-4952.[/panel]