By Gov. Ted Kulongoski
Alfred North Whitehead, the English philosopher and mathematician, once said, 'Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.' Creating the Campaign for Equal Justice was a brilliant idea. But without the Campaign’s early leaders and many others, the Campaign would still be a brilliant idea — and not much more. Instead, Oregon lawyers decided to do something about it.
But the Campaign is more than a cause or an idea— it is a moral obligation. As officers of the court, we are duty bound to keep the courthouse doors open to everyone. This is especially true now — as Oregon’s faltering economy washes more and more families onto the shore of poverty and hardship.
Oregon lawyers cannot turn our economy around. That’s not our responsibility. But it is our responsibility — and mine — to help the Campaign for Equal Justice turn around the lives of people who need legal services but cannot afford them.
We’re all better off when the light of social justice is brought to families whose stories are invisible — and whose ability to fight back, without help, is a pipe dream. The lawyers funded by the Campaign are giving a legal voice to the voiceless.
Opponents of Legal Aid do not argue that our courts belong to the rich. They just don’t want the federal government stepping in to help the poor. But this is a distinction without a difference. It is beyond dispute that thousands of Oregonians, and millions of Americans, would have absolutely no legal recourse against corporations, landlords, administrative agencies and abusive partners and spouses without help from Legal Aid.
We know that justice is one of a handful of core values that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Ninety percent or more. Our citizens fundamentally believe that our Constitution demands equal treatment before the law. That justice must be blind to the status of the parties. That the courts must be a refuge from the arbitrary acts of government and the abusive acts of private entities. And that if money is needed to pay for a justice system that is fair, impartial and protective of the weak as well as the strong, that money must be found.
This explains why Americans — by a wide margin — say they want civil legal services and support using tax dollars to pay for them. They also want legal services to be unencumbered by the kind of restrictions that were imposed in 1995.
Although these restrictions are still in place — with the exception of challenging welfare reform — the worst of the political attack on the Legal Services Corporation is over. At least for now. In its darkest hour, LSC was literally saved by lawyers, legislators and citizens — from both parties — who refused to remain silent while the constitutional rights of poor people were left to wither on the vine.
Two of those legislators are right here in Oregon. Senators Wyden and Smith have made legal services for the poor part of their bi-partisan agenda. For that they are both being honored by the American Judicature Society and the ABA. Congress seems to be waking up to the moral and legal imperative of LSC. A House-Senate Conference approved a $9.5 million increase for the Legal Services Corporation — for a total authorization of $338 million. President Bush signed the bill. This new money is not enough. But it is a step in the right direction that both Democrats and Republicans support.
I’ve been asked many times: What is the most important principle that I believe about government. My answer is this: I believe that the rule of law is the glue that holds our democratic system together. Citizens must have the opportunity to put the rule of law to work in their favor. Anything less, as I’ve already suggested, is an invitation first to unfairness, and eventually to anarchy.
That is why the Campaign for Equal Justice is absolutely critical to Oregon’s future. It is the best insurance — really the only insurance — we have against the rule of law becoming a privilege for some instead of a right for all. Unfortunately, the Campaign for Equal Justice cannot yet claim such a sweeping victory. More than 20 percent of Oregonians are poor enough to qualify for Legal Aid. But for most, it is a promise unfulfilled. Today, less than 18 percent of Oregonians who are eligible to receive free legal services can actually count on going into court, or even a negotiation, with a lawyer at their side. With 19 offices throughout the state, Legal Aid in Oregon turns away two out of every three cases that walk in the door.
We can do better. Not by looking to the federal government, but by looking to ourselves. Even with a larger federal investment in the Legal Services Corp., two-thirds of Legal Aid’s $11.5 million budget comes from state sources. Filing fees, Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, grants under the Violence Against Women Act, and, yes, the Campaign for Equal Justice.
Only about one in four members of the active bar contributes annually to the Campaign. The time has come for every active member of the Oregon bar to support the Campaign for Equal Justice. This is an opportunity for the private bar to share in the responsibility of caring for people who need more help than the government can provide.
I believe in the law — in its majesty, and in its power to right wrongs, protect the weak and serve democracy. People complain we have too many laws. I don’t agree. What we have are too many people who don’t have the means or ability to use the law to enforce their rights.
This must change. In Oregon it will if we contribute generously to the Campaign for Equal Justice. We are a better place because of the Campaign. All of us are better lawyers for supporting the Campaign. I ask that you continue that support. And that you bring equal justice to those who need it by standing with the Campaign for Equal Justice — an idea whose time is now.
© 2003 Gov. Ted Kulongoski