Ensuring the Promise of our Constitution

By Beacon Staff

The U.S. Constitution requires that all people receive the equal protection of the laws. “Equal Justice Under Law” appears over the main entry to the U.S. Supreme Court in our nation’s capitol. If folks cannot reasonably access their courts, I believe it goes without saying that equal protection of the laws and equal justice under law will remain empty promises.

Sadly, many Montanans have – as a practical matter – little or no realistic hope of obtaining equal justice. I speak of our friends and neighbors who are on the edge financially and simply cannot afford to hire an attorney. I think most often of the mother or father trying to manage a divorce or a parenting issue with no knowledge of the law or court proceedings. I think of the single parent threatened with eviction who has no idea what her or his rights are, or where to turn next. While courts exist to resolve disputes, ways must be found to provide adequate access to those courts – and to justice – for low-income Montanans. We can’t get there overnight, but we must get there. And the only way to get there is for every person – and every entity – who believes that equal justice means equal justice for all, not just for the wealthy, to work together in providing a variety of resources to low-income Montanans with legal problems.

As you would expect in Montana, we have been working on addressing the legal needs of low-income Montanans for quite a few years now. Many hundreds of Montana attorneys have provided – and continue to provide – legal representation to individual low-income Montanans without charge or, as we call it, pro bono. They also present free clinics in some communities to assist low-income folks in subject areas such as family law, and they help in many other ways. These lawyers are quiet heroes who generally go unrecognized as they increase access to justice in Montana. Last year, our partners at the Montana Justice Foundation grant-funded a statewide pro bono coordinator, who works out of the Montana Supreme Court Administrator’s office, to help “grow” the number of lawyers providing free legal assistance to low-income folks. Realistically, though, with more than 140,000 Montanans living at or below the federal poverty level – significant numbers with unmet legal needs – volunteer attorneys cannot fill the access to justice gap alone.

The 2007 Legislature and Governor Brian Schweitzer understood the magnitude of the need and, for the first time ever, stepped up to fund a pilot Self-Help Law Program in the Judicial Branch. With this quite modest funding, the Branch launched full-time self-help law centers in Billings and Kalispell, and partnered on smaller projects and centers in eight other Montana communities. We also partnered with the Montana Legal Services Association to create user-friendly court forms for self-represented folks. The self-help program has been a huge success which, perhaps surprisingly, leaves me with mixed emotions. I wish the program hadn’t needed to be so successful – because the need for these services is even higher than I had realized and more can, and must, be done. I trust the 2009 Legislature and the Governor will see the wisdom in continuing to fund these critical services for the people of Montana we all serve.

As a next step, the Montana access to justice “community” is sponsoring six listening sessions throughout the state between now and the end of the year. The primary purpose of the sessions is to hear more about the access to justice gap, the unmet needs and additional ways we can improve access to justice in Montana; we also want to educate Montanans about services already available. Co-sponsors of the forums include the Equal Justice Task Force, the Supreme Court Commission on Self-Represented Litigants, the State Bar’s Access to Justice Committee, the Montana Justice Foundation, the Supreme Court Self-Help and Pro Bono Programs and the University of Montana School of Law.

Karla Gray is the chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.