Guest Columns

MASTERS: NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW

Law Day stresses courts’ role in democracy

GUEST COLUMNIST

While in a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

His words are as clear then, in 1963, as they are now. The courts and those who sit on those benches or practice within those walls pursue daily their commitment to justice and the rule of law — that guiding principle that no one is above the law.

On May 1, we celebrated Law Day, and this year we focused on the courts and their ability to support and promote access to justice. Law Day was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 to celebrate our commitment to the rule of law. This year’s theme, “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom” highlights how funding, and it’s current shortages across the country, are impacting the mission of the judicial branch and those who practice within it to ensure that it continues to function as a venerable, independent part of the government and protects the rights and freedoms of the minority.

Growing up during the civil rights era, I saw the true impact the courts had. They were the last and best chance many people had to have their voices heard. The jurists on those courts used that power to protect the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all individuals under our Constitution, even if it wasn’t a popular decision or did not align with the voice of the majority.

There were landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate schools for black and white students unconstitutional; Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., which prevented discrimination in public accommodations; and New York Times Co. v. United States, which allowed the Times and the Washington Post to print the then-classified Pentagon Papers without censorship of the government. As time between those cases and now widens, it can be easy to forget their influence on ensuring the protection of individual rights — today these are things many Americans simply expect. Without the courts, where would our rights stand today?

As we hear stories about courts that must now close one day per week, operate without enough judges for their docket, or simply cannot take any more cases because the budget for paper has already been exhausted, it seems we may be getting a hint at that answer.

If time widens and cuts grow deeper, little or no access to the courts may become the new normal. We cannot
fail in our mission to protect the rule of law and the rights of all people.

Imagine if the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall outside the courthouse and were stopped from filing Brown because it was closed once a week for budget cuts.

This isn’t to say that Brown would not have progressed or that they would not have prevailed, but as the saying goes, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” This notion is a cornerstone to our democracy and our legal system, but items on a budget may now start to fully erode and endanger the courts in a way we cannot imagine.

Our nation’s courts have played a pivotal role in shaping our country and in ensuring the rights of all are protected. If our courts were to disappear, we would no longer have the rule of law; instead, we would have the rule of people, who can make choices that don’t always benefit everyone.

David L. Masters is the president of the Colorado Bar Association. He is a general practitioner in Montrose, Colo.