AJS at the Century Mark

Judicature, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

AJS at the Century Mark


AJS intends to marshal the legal community, just as it has over the past 100 years, to promote a culture of excellence based on performance. To achieve that goal, AJS needs reflective thinking and candid assessment by legal and judicial experts.

Over the past century, the American Judicature Society has been a national leader in promoting judicial reform, achieving significant improvements to the American justice system. The Society's work has led to modernized administrative structures, stronger judicial ethics codes, and merit-based systems of selecting judges in many states. AJS has served as a voice for the public's interest in effective courts, promoting greater transparency in judicial proceedings, and enhancing access to justice for all.

The Society was formed in 1913 as the result of a "circular letter" sent to prominent judges and law professors across the country soliciting comments about the most pressing issues regarding the administration of justice. Their responses formed the core issue agenda that propelled the Society's work for its first century: court modernization and consolidation, professionalization of the bench and bar, judicial selection based on merit rather than partisanship, and formalization of judicial ethics codes. More recently, AJS has sought better treatment for self-represented litigants and promoted greater accuracy in eyewitness identification procedures.

AJS has been proud to work with a wide range of people and organizations that have embraced our common agenda. The agenda itself, however, has not advanced to contend with all of the emerging and evolving systemic issues that our justice system faces. While there have been enormous improvements in the structure of the administration of justice and in the courts' service to their communities, the justice system as a whole has not met the fundamental challenge of reducing popular dissatisfaction.

The United States Supreme Court's popularity is at a quarter-century low. Public confidence in courts generally appears to be eroding; a recent public opinion survey shows that 43 percent of those polled had serious questions about the fairness of the courts, while 37 percent described courts as intimidating. There was virtually no support for increasing funding for courts.

How the public views the U.S. Supreme Court frames much of its perception of all other courts. But to be fair, many negative perceptions of the justice system are driven by the structure and actions of lower courts, especially in the states. A poll by the National Center for State Courts found that 59 percent of Americans believe that court decisions are influenced by politics. The decline in courts' standing stems in part from growing distrust of major institutions in general, and the government in particular. The questions about the legitimacy of judicial decisions are a product of a perception that all courts are more political than they were alleged to be in the past. A high volume of cases in some courts has dehumanized the process, leading to renewed concerns about "assembly-line justice" that cuts corners at best and violates basic rights at worst. Delays have become intolerable in too many courts. Explanation of decisions, judicial rhetoric, efficient case management, and transparency are within the courts' control. Excuses for sub-par performance are not acceptable.

A centennial celebration is a unique opportunity to ask an important question: What should the Society's agenda focus upon in the coming years? Should AJS stick with the tried and true, or should it expand the horizons of its applied research and programming? …

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