Law Day is an annual event, which was originally conceived in 1957 when American Bar Association President Charles Rhynes envisioned a special national day to mark our commitment to the rule of law. The following year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the first Law Day. Law Day was made official in 1961 when Congress issued a joint resolution designating May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day. This year’s Law Day theme is “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.”
Each year, the Gallatin County Bar Association hosts a variety of activities to celebrate Law Day with the distinct purpose of educating the public about our justice system, the judicial branch of our government, the history of law in the United States and the legal profession. This year the Montana Supreme Court will again hear oral arguments at the MSU SUB Ballroom on April 30, 2012 beginning at 9:30 a.m. This event is open to the public and is a great opportunity for the public to witness firsthand our state’s highest court in action.
There could not be a more fitting theme for this year’s Law Day given today’s economic climate. This year’s theme gives us an opportunity to give special recognition to our courts, and understand their position as keepers of justice and the rights of the American people.
In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, states reported 106 million incoming trial court cases. That figure surpasses every record from the preceding 35 years. Remarkably, the number of incoming cases per general jurisdiction judge often reached into the thousands. However, during the same period of time that our courts witnessed increased filings, they also suffered significant budget cuts. Our legal system must be accessible to be just and fair. We can and should address the problem of needless or abusive litigation, but making the courts less efficient and available by and through decreased funding is not the answer.
Unfortunately, the courts in Gallatin County are not immune from these national economic problems. Filings, both criminal and civil, continue to increase each year. The facilities our courts are currently housed in suffer from significant safety and efficiency problems. More specifically, the Gallatin County Law and Justice Center is a retired high school that has been retrofitted to accommodate what should be a keystone symbol of our community. The Law and Justice Center is too small to fit all of the necessary employees and is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or the International Fire Code.
The good news is efforts are underway to develop our Law and Justice Center campus for courts and law enforcement. However, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that this development will come to fruition in the near future. Community involvement at the city and county level is necessary to make this necessity a reality. As our population in Gallatin County continues to grow, new facilities are necessary to keep up with our growth. The Gallatin County Bar Association is creating a committee to work on educating the public about the development of the Law and Justice Center campus and construction of a courthouse for the courts. Gallatin County’s Capital Improvement Program has given priority to the construction of new court and law enforcement facilities. As a community, we need to work with our city and county authorities to provide appropriate facilities and to educate ourselves about the need for these facilities.
The Law Day theme reminds us of the significant and important function of our courts in our democracy. Maintaining an independent and vibrant judiciary is fundamental to protecting the freedoms and rights that we have as citizens. Not only do we require adequate facilities, more importantly we require sustaining our courts by being aware, educated and knowledgeable about our courts, the judicial system and the preservation of our rights as citizens.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, "The founders realized there has to be someplace where being right is more important than being popular or powerful, and where fairness trumps strength. And in our country, that place is supposed to be the courtroom."
Ryan K. Jackson is the president of the Gallatin County Bar Association.