08/06/2011 © Miami Herald
There’s a new contender for the most-used verb in America: cut. Cutting the federal deficit was the basis of the raging congressional debate that just ended. It was the centerpiece of many actions taken by the Florida Legislature during its recent session. It’s also a word on the lips of many corporate executives, and many of us as we tighten our own personal spending. Talking about cuts is an easy way to capture the mood of the times, and everyone supports doing what it takes to get the economy back on a more even keel. But we have to ask ourselves: Will these cuts destroy something much greater, like our fundamental values and freedoms? What if budget cuts eliminate our access to justice overseen by fair and impartial courts? Why would we jeopardize what makes our system of justice great? As more budget cuts loom on the horizon, we must say No to further court and legal aid funding reductions. There’s a fundamental problem today that threatens the courts at every level. Our judiciary is viewed as simply another line item in the budget rather than the third, co-equal branch of government charged by the Constitution with protecting our freedoms. Our courts are not like another road project, or government agency. They are the foundation of our freedom. They are the protectors of the basic promise made by our Founders that we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those are promises worth protecting, and adequately funding. What’s worse is that courts are already being strangled by anemic budgets, leading to case delays, judicial vacancies, courtroom closures and service cuts. This threatens every person’s ability to seek court protection and redress. It returns us to a time when we were forced to live by the rule of the jungle and not the rule of law. To all of us, this is unacceptable. And to me, having lived in Cuba in the late 1950s and having witnessed this creeping threat that weakened the judicial system there, I find it deeply unsettling. What’s also very worrisome is that another crucial part of the justice system is under threat: basic legal advice and aid to poor and working class Americans via legal aid providers. Money from the Legal Services Corporation helps disaster victims handle health and life insurance claims, veterans settle housing disputes and the elderly get the benefits they are owed. Despite handling almost a million cases a year with an already meager budget, Legal services funding is under the cost-savings axe. LSC is more overworked than ever with requests for aid due to high unemployment numbers and the “new poor” created by the recession and housing bust. But its big mission and small budget may not protect it. The House is considering a dramatic cut to LSC funding that would erase more than a quarter of its entire budget, bringing LSC down to its lowest funding level in more than a decade. This is frightening. Already, it is estimated that current legal aid budgets allow only about half of those who seek legal aid to actually get it. Less money will mean hundreds of thousands more people who have nowhere to go when they most need legal advice. A new round of cuts would decimate what access people have to help with child support, custody issues or foreclosure prevention. It must not happen.In the weeks and months ahead, the American people and those we elected to represent us will have serious conversations about the size, shape and funding of our government. And naturally, there will be differing opinions. But on the issue of protecting our fundamental liberties, freedoms, rights and values by protecting our courts and legal aid, there should — and must — be complete support. Stephen N. Zack is president of the American Bar Association. He lives in Miami Beach.