The Texas Supreme Court & Civil Access to Justice

It is on the policy level that state high courts can have the most impact in supporting their states’ legal aid infrastructure.  As a matter of public policy, courts can publicly back a more soundly funded system for their state’s lower-income residents in need.  And as a matter of “private policy,” if you will, high courts can (within judicial ethics guidelines) encourage private-bar partnership with legal aid.

The Texas Supreme Court has catalyzed great developments in promoting civil ATJ for

Don't Mess.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Don’t mess. (image: Wikimedia Commons)

low-income and other vulnerable Texans.  The Court has worked with and through the state’s ATJ Commission and Foundation (separate entities), the legislature, the bar, legal aid providers, and others.

Most impressive in Texas is that the Court’s leadership has come from the top, beginning with (now-retired) Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.  His successor, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, was the Court’s liaison to the ATJ Commission before becoming chief.  CJ Hecht has emerged as a national leader in promoting high-court involvement in ATJ initiatives.  When he became chief, Hecht passed the liaison baton to Justice Eva Guzman.

Writing an op-ed in The Monitor, Justice Guzman highlights the need to bolster legal-aid funding, and some steps the Court is backing to find new funding streams.  Quotable:

  • “Adequate funding for legal aid programs is imperative to ensure justice for all Texas residents.”  [All high courts support ATJ in principle, but it’s good to see a justice flatly state that funding is “imperative”  to achieving ATJ.  It’s funding that empowers legal aid providers to partner with pro bono lawyers and to creatively seek out even more funding streams.]
  • “Several [state] legislative solutions have been proposed to address critical funding deficiencies…[including] bills to expand the Chief Justice Jack Pope Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in 2013. Under the…Act, the Texas Attorney General transfers civil penalties assessed for violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act to the Supreme Court for civil legal-aid grants. House Bill 1079 would expand the Pope Act to allow undedicated funds the state receives for violations of certain other statutes to be used by the Supreme Court for grants to legal aid programs. Examples include violations of statutes that protect Texans from price-fixing schemes and identity theft.”
  • “Additional victim-assistance funds have been created by taxes imposed on sexually oriented businesses. Chapter 102 of the Texas Business and Commerce Code imposes a nominal tax on customers of sexually oriented businesses and allocates part of the revenue generated to a sexual-assault program fund. The Supreme Court has requested that a portion of those funds be appropriated for grants to legal aid programs providing assistance to…population that includes sexual-assault and human-trafficking victims.”
  • “To help our veterans, the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Veterans Commission have partnered in a new initiative called Justice for Veterans. The goal of this partnership is to increase funding for direct legal assistance to veterans and their families and for veterans’ courts.”

Big high-five to the Texas Supreme Court and other government actors for doing their share.  Civil legal aid has historically been (or at least had the potential to be) a powerful public-private partnership.  (Alliteration!, but for more on that read here, here, here.)  Government institutions putting their time and resources behind ATJ goals is hugely important to building broader support.

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