IN her biennial State of the Judiciary Address given to the 150 joint members of the State Legislature, Chief Justice Karla Gray called for the legislators’ help in “[meeting] our constituents’ needs for – and constitutional guarantees to – quality and reasonably timely justice.” (Newspaper Article, 1 page). Proposed items in the Judiciary’s 2007-2009 budget include:
$3.9 million to upgrade Information-Technology Systems across District Courts and Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
$1.6 million to address pay-equity issues amongst all court staff
~$400,000 for children’s advocacy programs
$300,000 to improve security in District Courts
$250,000 for additional staff to the Supreme Court
OF the $250,000 for additional staff, a portion would be used towards hiring a pro se law clerk who, along with an appelate mediator, would help “resolve a significant portion of [the Courts'] caseload.” House Bill 60 (HTML document, 2 pages) addresses the proposed Self-Help Law Program to be administered by the Supreme Court, enumerating a number of charges along with the bill’s purpose:
(1) providing all Montanans with user-friendly information about Montana’s civil law, courts, and legal system;
(2) providing state-level, self-help legal resources, tools, information, and training materials on a statewide basis in a cost-effective manner emphasizing technology and volunteer services; and
(3) facilitating the efficient use of judicial resources in civil court proceedings that involve self-represented litigants.
THE bill details a $1 million appropriations note to provide education and resources for 2 years. Passed with unanimous, bi-partisan support by the 2006 Law and Justice Interim Committee which created the bill by order of 2005 Senate Joint Resolution 6 (HTML document, 2 pages); HB60 is yet to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee of the 60th Legislative Session. SJR6 coincided with the Legal Needs Survey of 2005 (PDF Document, 4 pages) conducted by the State Bar which concluded that approximately 83% of the 207,501 unmet legal needs of low-income Montanan Households receive no attention from an attorney. Chief Justice Gray was singing a very similar tune in her original testimony to the Law and Justice Interim Committee in 2006:
“Right and justice shall be administered without denial or delay. For families and low income people in your district, your constituents, my constituents, the people of the state of Montana, the need is huge. The access to justice community has leveraged every hour, every nickel, about ten times farther than anyone else anywhere in the country trying to address these issues. [Myself] personally, and the courts of this state, have nudged, cajoled, encouraged, and semi-coerced lawyers into meeting their professional obligation of rendering pro bono service and the Legislature can take it to the bank that the court will keep doing that, but the fact is, there are never going to be enough pro bono lawyers to represent every low income person in our great state who has legal problems and needs to get into court.”
SHE has given the people of Montana, and their legislators, time and time again her expert opinion on what the legal needs are for low-income Montanans. Chief Justice Karla Gray’s message of dire need has been championed repeatedly, only time will tell how many people in positions of power have listened; they have until April 27th.