Gideon’s trumpet is heard faintly now. The prospect grows dimmer that we will realize the promise of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The Preamble identifies every lawyer as “a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice” and to use our “influence to ensure access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal representation”. That noble sentiment runs into enormous obstacles.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008 the Federal Reserve reduced effective interest rates to near zero. Interest on lawyers trust accounts plummeted. Legal Services Corporation agencies cuts staffs by as much as half. It is not easy for courts to take firm action today to realize the laudable goals of our profession. They cannot themselves appropriate money, and elected officials faced with mandates may act against judges directly – as in New Jersey where a Governor can without stating a reason refuse to nominate for tenure any judge at the conclusion of the seven year term. In other states judges face retention elections.
In New Jersey the Editorial Board of the Law Journal – the only statewide legal newspaper – has deplored the state Supreme Court’s refusal to review D.N. v. K.M. There Justice Barry Albin – who has tenure – dissented alone from a denial of certification. The Appellate Division had refused to appoint counsel for a respondent in a “civil” Domestic Violence action. A finding of domestic violence has grave consequences. They include reputational harm, a loss of custody of children; loss of possession of the family home; financial penalties; placement on the offender registry; and loss of the right to a weapons permit – devastating for a law enforcement officer for whom that is a job requirement.
Albin argued for appointment of counsel.