On April 18, I attended the Stand Up For Justice Rally in San Francisco. I was joined by a number of my colleagues from the SCCBA and hundreds more from around the state. I had not attended a rally since I was in law school, and as I was standing there in the hot sun holding up the SCCBA Stand Up For Justice sign and listening to the speakers urge us to support the courts, I realized that the rally was a critical example of the community at work. Hundreds of lawyers came together on a Wednesday afternoon to make their voices heard: “No Courts, No Freedom, No Justice.”
One reason I have not attended any rallies in recent years is the digitalization of my communities. Information is instantly accessible with all of the smartphones and tablet computers, and it is deceptively simple to remain isolated and simply gather information rather than participate in the world around us. Digital petitions and email campaigns abound, but are they as effective as a phone call or meeting? You can type a happy birthday message on Facebook in ten seconds and feel as though you connected with someone, but are these connections (at least standing alone) illusory? Can you make genuine personal connections without meeting in person?
New England is well known for hosting town meetings to decide issues important to citizens, and my hometown in New Hampshire was no exception. I remember accompanying my parents to town meetings and listening to the debates over the issues. Although the speakers were always passionate, there was a certain restraint because there was no cloak of anonymity. The whole town was watching and listening, and the person on the other side of this debate was likely to be in front of you in line tomorrow at the grocery store. Town meetings are certainly not an efficient way to govern, but they build community and civility.
Presidential campaigns are also personal in New Hampshire. The common not-so-urban legend in my hometown was that people would only vote for a presidential candidate if they had met them personally. I remember the parade of presidential candidates pouring through my high school, and although politics cannot be that personal on a nationwide scale, the personalization contributed to the community and to the passion and involvement of the state’s citizens in governmental affairs.
As I listened to the speakers at the Stand Up For Justice Rally, the stories that they shared with the gathered community renewed my belief of how important personal connections are. We all agree in theory that it is important to keep the courts open to dispense justice, but unless that truth is connected to us and to our community, those good thoughts are not propelled into action. Without stories of what has happened to ordinary people because of cuts to court funding, the critical problems our courts face recede into dollars and cents disconnected with reality.
Here are a few of the shared stories that explain why this fight is about our community, our family and our neighbors. In Los Angeles, a man who successfully fought a wrongful eviction with the help of pro bono lawyers died sleeping outside while waiting for the order to be processed. In San Diego, a woman filed for a restraining order against her abusive spouse. Unable to get a hearing due to budget cuts and at risk of violence at home, she slept in her car at the courthouse. A Vietnamese-speaking woman sought help in getting a restraining order against her boyfriend, whom she said had sexually assaulted her. Since the court was unable to act on the application that day, a Friday, the woman and her two children stayed at a shelter for battered women over the weekend. The woman missed a weekend of work --- her two most profitable days. The court did issue the restraining order on Monday; however, the hearing on her case had to be continued, twice, because there was no Vietnamese interpreter due to court layoffs. The hearing ultimately took place in late January, after the woman and her children were forced to live in fear and uncertainty for months.
These are just a few of the chilling stories shared with the community on April 18, but they illustrate the critical needs for our community and our state to come together to ensure that there are no more stories like these. I am reminded of John Donne’s famous lines:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The bells are tolling, and unless we can come together to ensure that justice is accessible to all in our community, we will all be lost. This is a fight for justice at our front door and lawyers need to take the lead in our communities. This fight for access to justice should be our cause, and it is deserving of our passion. I urge you to disconnect from the digital world, at least temporarily, and connect in person with our community. You don’t need to attend a rally to do so—you can just rally your friends, family and co-workers by sharing these stories with them. Let them know that the law is not just a job; it is the foundation of democracy. Share your passion for justice. Help ensure that there are no more stories like the ones shared on April 18. Join me and stand up for justice.