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A more perfect union

By James Dimos

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago, a group of white men spent their summer vacation in Philadelphia. The fruit of their labors is considered to be the most enduring charter of self-government ever devised, the Ushutterstock_magnacartanited States Constitution. A replacement for the unworkable Articles of Confederation, the drafters sought “to form a more perfect union.” As it was drafted by mortals, the original version was not perfect – it included tacit approval of slavery, counting people of color as only 3/5 of a person, and the silent disregard of the unequal treatment of women under the existing law. Yet, it was a vast improvement over the existing structure and, both then and now, serves as a model for the notion that governance is by the rule of law and not the rule of man.

The first priority in achieving this more perfect union was to “establish justice.” The drafters placed justice before insuring “domestic tranquility,” providing for the “common defense,” promoting the “general welfare” and even securing the “blessings of liberty.” The drafters of the Indiana Constitution of 1851 placed the same value on justice, stating in the Preamble that the Constitution was being ordained “[t]o [t]he [e]nd, that justice be established, public order maintained, and liberty perpetuated … .” To establish justice, both constitutions relied on a judiciary, as one of three co-equal branches or departments of government, to dispense justice for all.

The 2014 ISBA Annual Meeting will celebrate the rule of law with a variety of special events. The keynote speaker for the Annual Meeting is Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In the decades since its founding, the SPLC has used the courts to shut down some of the nation’s most dangerous white supremacist groups by winning multimillion-dollar jury verdicts on behalf of their victims.

In addition, the ISBA is hosting the American Bar Association Magna Carta Facsimile Traveling Exhibit curated by the Law Library of Congress at the Indiana Statehouse during its fall meeting. The exhibit will feature spectacular images on freestanding banners that will tell the story of the Magna Carta and its catalyst role in promoting the rule of law. This exhibit is open to the public from Sept. 30 to Oct. 9.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Annual Meeting will open with a 2-hour CLE program on Wednesday, Oct. 8, at the Indiana Supreme Court courtroom about the significant impact the Magna Carta has had on our culture, both from an American and British perspective, and the rule of law around the world and here at home. In 2015, we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document sealed by King John of England in response to demands by landowning barons. The king agreed to the supremacy of law in limiting his powers, a bedrock moment in developing the rule of law.

Chaired by Justice Steven H. David, our Magna Carta panelists will include Garrison Sergeant Major Billy Mott, Ceremonial Warrant Officer, London; Jon Laramore, Faegre Baker Daniels; Hon. John D. Tinder, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit; Sharon R. Barner (invited), vice president and general counsel, Cummins; and Past ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson, Frost Brown Todd.

That evening, the Federal Judiciary Committee will present the Henry Hurst Judicial Assistance Award, recognizing the invaluable contributions of a staff person to the federal judiciary in Indiana. In addition, during the course of the meeting, many of the CLE programs offered by our sections and committees will highlight the importance of the rule of law in their practice.

The public looks to the judiciary to provide justice. As documented by the American Bar Association, in 2013, more than 430,000 cases were filed in federal district courts and courts of appeals; in excess of 1.1 million petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; and more than 13,000 civil and criminal jury trials were held. In his State of the Judiciary speech to the General Assembly, Chief Justice Dickson noted that in 2013, Indiana’s trial and appellate courts received more than 1.6 million new case filings, conducted 1,338 civil and criminal jury trials, and considered approximately 3,000 appeals or petitions for transfer.

However, while co-equal in stature, the truth today is that the judicial branch is severely underfunded. As noted by Chief Justice John Roberts in his 2013 Annual Report, the federal judicial branch receives 2/10 of 1 percent of the federal government’s total outlays. As noted by Chief Justice Dickson, in Indiana, the judiciary operates on only 9/10 of 1 percent of the total spending by all Hoosier government units. Allocating such a small percentage of our resources to the third, co-equal branch of government performing the preeminent role of government is inadequate, and the financial pressures at the federal and state level are putting a strain on our courts and delaying access to justice. My former parish priest was fond of saying: “Show me your checkbook, and I will show you your priorities.” A look at our current federal and state checkbooks should cause us all to ask whether we are putting our money where our constitution is.

The rule of law as provided through access to justice is a cornerstone of our society. It is what keeps order and allows business to succeed. Let’s work together to make sure that our courts are properly funded and open to all – and continue to make our union more perfect.

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