Equal access to justice isn’t a partisan issue, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told a crowd of more than 100 at the N.C. Bar Association Tuesday. It just looks like one.
Hecht, who gave the keynote address at the North Carolina Access to Justice Summit, is almost a case study in the way the issue crosses ideological lines. A conservative Republican who was appointed by former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Hecht has enjoyed strong support from Sen. Ted Cruz. But he’s nonetheless opposed cuts to legal aid proposed from the political right, championed criminal justice reforms and pretrial release programs that benefit poor defendant.
In his experience, Hecht said, making sure the justice system works equally for all people is something everyone can get behind. Political rhetoric just gets in the way of realizing that sometimes.
“This is not the justice system we would create if it was up to us to do it today,” Hecht said Tuesday. “We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for years and years and the society has changed the point where that’s just not going to work anymore.”
Unrealistic court costs and fines, a bail system that leads to overcrowded jails as mostly non-violent defendants are housed long-term because they are poor — all of it is as nonsensical to Republicans as Democrats, Hecht said, even if they come at the issue from different angles.
“We mustn’t abandon the middle,” Hecht said. “There are a lot of issues we share with each other. It’s fine to disagree, but we need to find where we agree.”
In Texas, Hecht said, equal access to justice advocates have been successful in making the economic argument to fiscal conservatives — business leaders and lawmakers.
“Our strongest ally in Texas has been Exxon,” Hecht said — a revelation that seemed to surprise and amuse the crowd at the summit.
“Their general counsels in the last 10 to 15 years have all been part of our Equal Access to Justice Commission,” Hecht said. “And their legal counsel recruited AT&T. Even the CEOs are supportive. Rex Tillerson was very supportive of legal aid before he went to the government.”
There’s a business argument to be made that an expensive, opaque and poorly functioning justice system is bad for both the workforces of large corporations and their consumers, Hecht said.
Legal services funding has been under attack by conservatives at the national and the state level, Hecht acknowledged. That’s a problem with which equal justice advocates in North Carolina have been struggling for years.
But while things may be getting more intense at the far ends of the political spectrum, Hecht said he actually believes support for things like legal aid and criminal justice reform is growing both in the public and in Washington.
“Right in the middle of President Obama’s administration, the Republican majority House voted every year on a bill to zero out [The Legal Services Corporation],” Hecht said. “And they’d get 200 voters to zero it out. They haven’t had a bill like that in 2 to 3 years, even though it’s a Republican led house. And last time they had one, they only got like 60 or 80 votes.”
There was a lot of nervousness with the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s budget calling for an elimination of funding for legal service.
“But we learned something from that,” Hecht said. “The Hill is very jealous about whose budget it is. And it ain’t the White House’s. When we went up to the Hill in April to talk about the budget. Every time we went into a congressperson’s office, said we’re very worried about the White House budget. A friend of mine who is a very influential person there, he said, “You see that book over thee holding open the door? That’s the White House budget.”
Tuesday’s summit also included a panel featuring Hecht, George V. Hanna III of Charlotte law firm Moore & Van Allen, Jennifer M. Lechner, Executive Director of the N.C. Equal Access to Justice Commission and McKinley Wooten Jr., Deputy Director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. Campbell University School of Law’s Dean J. Rich Leonard moderated.
The panel explored Hecht’s experiences in Texas and how equal access advocates in North Carolina might use them as a guide for dealing with the Republican lawmakers in Raleigh who have been hostile to many of the reforms for which they’re working.
The discussion included an exploration of reforms to court fines and fees and the expansion of pretrial service programs.
Wooten made the point that Texas’ reforms, as described by Hecht, sound good, but opined that the challenge in North Carolina, as in Texas, is making sure everyone has access to them.
“I do think with the approach of being creative not only with fines but also with pretrial diversion programs…that in a state like this that’s no different from Texas where there are rural and metropolitan places…one of our challenges is looking at pretrial diversion programs and encouraging them everywhere,” Wooten said. “I think that’s our real challenge here. If we’re going to have pretrial diversion, it should be available to you no matter where you are in the state.”
Lechner and Hanna both said they were heartened by hearing about Hecht’s experiences bridging the partisan divide on equal justice issues in Texas.
“As a former Lobbyist I like to believe that if you haven’t voted with me, it’s because i haven’t done enough education on the issue,” Lechner said.
“We have not done a very good job of messaging and getting that message out to legislators and others who can help get funding for legal aid,” Lechner said.
Hanna said he agreed.
“I really think we individually don’t do enough influencing the people who can make a difference,” Hanna said. “And it can be indirect. To be honest with you, there are probably not a lot of Republican lawmakers who are going to spend a lot of time listening to George Hanna. But I do know in-house counsel. And I don’t know how often they get asked.”
“I’m not sure we in North Carolina have spent enough time trying to change peoples’ minds,” Hanna said. “I think unfortunately it’s become a partisan issue. And this isn’t even a bipartisan issue. This is a nonpartisan issue.”
In his closing remarks, before presenting Hecht with a Friend of the Court award, North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin emphasized the need for a change in approaching equal justice advocacy.
“Confrontational approaches have not worked,” Martin said. “And I’ve probably engaged in them myself — and yes, at the legislature.”
“Let’s change minds through persuasion,” Martin said.