Protecting access to justice matters to us all

On Monday, the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended funding LSC at $402 million. That figure represents a significant investment in access to justice, a genuine statement of bipartisanship in a contentious political environment, and it should be the baseline for coming budget discussions.

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The majority of cases LSC-funded aid providers see are matters of family law, often with indications of abuse. As a nation, we have a moral obligation to address domestic violence. That call to action, like the desperate need for legal aid for indigents, does not depend on political identity. The Violence Against Women Act is simply the most important justice tool to combat domestic violence, sexual abuse and stalking.

We know that more than 1-in-3 women and 1-in-4 men in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence or stalking by a partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If these figures are distressing, consider how many more men, women and children would have suffered had VAWA never been passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in earlier Congresses. The U.S. Justice Department determined in a recent study that the number of women killed by intimate partners declined by 34 percent since VAWA's passage, and nonfatal violent acts against women by intimate partners decreased 53 percent. That decline was also seen for men.

VAWA is up for reauthorization and, as in past years, bipartisan coalitions in the House of Representatives and the Senate are pushing the legislation.  Lawyers are working alongside faith-based, justice and civic groups to get VAWA across the finish line, but imagine if there was no court open to hear an emergency request for a restraining order. What if an abuse survivor was made to wait years before a court could consider her case?  Locked courtroom doors offer the wrong kind of closure.

According to the National Center for State Courts, 42 states cut funding for their judiciaries in 2011. In California, deep cuts led to huge delays in San Francisco, where it is now expected to take at least a year and a half to get an uncontested divorce. Budgets in Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio were so tight that judges asked for office supply donations from the community to keep their courts running.

At the same time that our courts are facing a severe funding drought, NCSC estimates that outstanding court debts across the country total approximately $15 billion.

Fortunately, a common sense bill being considered in Congress would address this problem. The Crime Victim Restitution and Court Fee Intercept Act enables the U.S. Treasury Department-only at the request of state court systems-to intercept the federal tax returns of those who have neglected to pay court-ordered financial obligations. A cost-neutral way to recover overdue monies, this legislation is being crafted to avoid burdening indigents.

Ultimately, these three issues are about access to justice. This access to justice is the surest guarantor of a safe, productive society. The American Bar Association, state and local bar associations, and our respective members are committed to fulfilling the promise of equal justice for all.

Robinson is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.