Access to Justice: AALL Annual Meeting

July 12, 2013

govt blog 2It is appropriate and relevant that the topic for the keynote address at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association of Law Librarians is “Access to Justice.”  This topic is appropriate because 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, one of the Court’s most significant decisions on the question of access to justice.

The topic is also relevant for AALL because after being denied a state-appointed lawyer, Gideon used a state prison law library as his main resource to draft his five-page pauper’s appeal.  It was at a law library where Gideon found the information he needed to frame a claim that under the 14th Amendment he was denied his due process right to be represented by a lawyer.  The rest is history.  We can only speculate about how different American legal history would be if Clarence Gideon had not had access to a prison law library.  The fact that Gideon had access to that library is a tribute to the work state and county law librarians do to provide access to information about the law and our justice system.

America was founded on the concept of the rule of law–the premise that we are all equal under the law.  Access to information in law libraries plays a key role in insuring that the promises that come with the concept of the rule of law are fulfilled.  In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the importance of preserving the principle of the rule of law when he wrote about it in his treatise titled Democracy in America.  De Tocqueville concluded that “[T}he American aristocracy is at the attorneys’ bar and on the judges’ bench.”  He went on to state that “… the spirit of the lawyer, by its qualities and . . . , even its defects, is appropriate for neutralizing the vices inherent in popular government”

Even though Clarence Gideon was indigent and uneducated about the law, he appears to have understood the point made by de Tocqueville.  By utilizing the resources in a law library Gideon was able to comprehend that denial of the right to a lawyer in a criminal case is tantamount to the denial of access to justice.

Despite Gideon’s stunning legal victory more than one-half century ago, the challenge to provide access to justice under the law continues to exist today.  The last fifty years have taught us that providing access to justice is not like a 100-yard dash where after a burst of speed the race is over in a matter of seconds.  No this effort is more like a marathon where a long-term commitment, diligence, and endurance are key ingredients.  Anyone committed to meeting this challenge must realize that they are in it for the long haul.

The need for a continuing commitment brings me back to my initial point—it is appropriate and relevant that AALL continue to focus on its role in guaranteeing   access to justice for as many citizens as possible.  It is fitting that you pause for a moment to celebrate the role law librarians played in vindicating Gideon’s constitutional rights.  But, it is more important that you focus on what remains to be done.  An informed and enlightened democratic society cannot survive unless there is a genuine access to justice under the law for everyone.

Law librarians do play an essential role by educating the people as to their rights and responsibilities in a democratic society.  The resources you provide are capable of unlocking the door that leads to a more just society.  Given the key role law librarians can and do play, it is important that you come together to exchange ideas, tactics and strategies on how to do your job better and more efficiently.  You have an obligation to work together to develop and hone a clear and strong voice that not only explains what you do, but also advocates the ideals that underlie the reason why you exist.

If you are willing to confront the challenge before you and do your job well, you can convert feelings of angst and uncertainty about the future into feelings of hope and optimism.  You can turn critics and skeptics into allies.  Indeed, if you do your job well, you can transform an unfilled ideal and goal into reality, just as your predecessors did for Clarence Gideon.

Justice Paul H. Anderson

Minnesota Supreme Court


 Note from Thomson Reuters:

Thomson Reuters is committed to offering the best technology solutions to help law librarians meet this challenge and provide access to justice for everyone. Visit booth #623 at this year’s AALL annual meeting to learn more about WestlawNext Patron Access, an online legal research platform designed specifically for law libraries, and the patrons and broader communities they serve.