Don’t just talk politics; be an advocate for justice

March 17, 2017
President’s Message By Melaine Shannon Rothey

“Supporting and advocating for a fair and effective judicial system that is accessible to every individual regardless of economic status.” Those are very powerful words taken directly from the ACBA mission statement. As members of this Association, it is our obligation to foster, live by, and ensure that these goals are not pushed aside or lost. How can we do that? Of course, I have a couple of suggestions:

A fair and effective judicial system is the backbone of our profession, but that backbone can be fractured if we do not step up and support it. Our Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania has been short four judges for many, many months. While the other members of the court, including Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti, have stepped up and taken on the additional work load, that can only continue for so long. They need work/life balance just as much as lawyers do. It is incumbent upon us to contact U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey and impress upon them the necessity of filling these open slots. They already have vetted candidates and sent names to the president’s office. Due to ridiculous political haggling (i.e., “I’’ll support your candidate if you support my candidate” or “I am not supporting your candidate because he/she is a Democrat and I am a Republican” or vice versa,) the appointments are still hanging on the vine with no prospect of being picked anytime soon. So, I encourage everyone to mail a letter or send an email, make a phone call or – best yet – make a personal visit and explain the hardships these vacancies create and urge that they make this a priority on their to-do lists. Tell them to move this matter to the front burner and turn the heat on.

Our state and county courts are equally as important and they also deserve our attention. I am sure that you are aware that there is a Supreme Court race this year. There are also races for Superior and Commonwealth Courts, and our own Court of Common Pleas Court has two open seats. I suspect that, as has been my experience since I passed the bar exam, your neighbors and relatives will ask you for whom they should vote, because they either do not follow or have no interest in following the judicial races. They do not understand the impact that these races can have in their everyday lives. As we have a very real appreciation for the need to elect competent, knowledgeable and compassionate judges, it is essential that we do our homework prior to giving voting advice on a candidate.

The ACBA Judiciary Committee devotes a lot of time to interviewing judicial candidates and issuing ratings to help voters make up their minds. Consider those ratings and the discussions you’ve had with colleagues who have had cases with the candidate, have appeared in the candidate’s courtroom or have served on bar association committees with the candidate. This combination should give you an accurate opinion as to whether the person would have the proper temperament on the bench and a commitment to a fair system of justice.

A commitment to a fair system of justice is, as I suspect you know by now, my passion. We must maintain and safeguard a court system that is not only available, but truly within the reach of every person, without regard to wealth, income, disability, color, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. As both the federal and state governments prepare their budgets, it is feared that cuts will be made to the funding for the Legal Services Corporation and to Neighborhood Legal Services Association. These entities provide free or low–cost legal services to our most vulnerable neighbors on, among other areas, housing issues, child–support enforcement, child–custody matters, protection from abuse and medical concerns. Without the daily dedication of our underpaid and overworked NLSA attorneys, paralegals and support staff, slumlords would continue to provide substandard rental properties, deadbeats would continue to ignore their responsibility to support their children, unfit parents would be raising their children, abusers would prey on other family members and serious mental and physical health needs would go untreated.

I call on you, again, to contact your state and federal senators and representatives to encourage them to, at the very least, continue the funding at the current level. While an increase would, of course, be preferable, that certainly seems highly unlikely, but I remain an optimist.

Again, when I am in charge of the world…