2001 Keynote Address - Justice Robert F. Utter (Ret.)

The Rule of Law and the Magnificence of the Human Spirit

Justice Robert F. Utter (Ret.)

Judge Dwyer has spelled out in glowing terms the dedication of Charles Goldmark to his profession, family, and the rule of law. In particular, he has described the devotion that was required in the beginning to establish strong roots for the Legal Foundation of Washington. That foundation has existed since 1984 with the inspired leadership and services of many of those here in this room today.

Jan Peterson noted in his recent column in the Bar News that in 1980 there was a ratio of one legal services attorney to every 4,129 eligible poor people. In 2000, the ratio was one to every 12,389 poor persons, a 200% growth in those to be served without additional staff. An additional $4 million over and above state support is needed to just maintain existing levels of operation and to begin the process of restoring services to at least the 1980 level. It is truly a crisis that requires new opportunities that are not available today.

The Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is the same. With their ancient wisdom they perceived that from every difficulty there is the possibility for something better. While the list of accomplishments of the Legal Foundation of Washington grantees are great, their ability to continue to serve effectively is seriously threatened unless new and better opportunities are created for them.

The actions of Charles Goldmark and others to make justice available to all are mirrored in the dedication of people throughout the world for these same goals for their countries. If there is a universal longing inherent to all peoples and nations, it is for the rule of law that will protect human rights and make justice available in a legal system open and available for everyone. I have been fortunate over the years to be involved along with many others to observe lawyers and judges throughout the world, acting in the finest traditions of our profession, in their attempts to assure ways in which justice can be made available for all. They are heroic figures striving against almost insurmountable odds. In doing so they offer inspiration and encouragement to us in our own struggles.

Recently a poll was taken in Haiti to find what people most desired in that nation. In a country with massive unemployment, brutality, corruption, poverty, and a pervading sense of hopelessness, the primary wish was for the availability of justice for all and for a non-corrupt court system. A later, new program revealed that in spite of an infusion of millions of dollars of aid, there had been no impact on the problem of availability of justice in the courts of Haiti. What was needed, it concluded, was a core group of judges and lawyers with courage and integrity and a system that would encourage their aims.

The fulfillment of this universal longing for justice and access to a fair judicial system does not occur without an investment of time, energy, commitment, and courage. More than 400 judges and lawyers in nearly 50 countries suffered reprisals last year. These included death, kidnappings, and arrests, according to the Center for Independence of Judges and Lawyers, a human rights monitoring group. Columbia topped the list of dangerous places for legal practitioners, accounting for eight of the 16 jurists deaths reported worldwide in the year ending February of 2000. Another 10 jurists were kidnapped and 14 threatened or assaulted in Columbia. In Pakistan, at least 34 judges and lawyers were slain over the past three years, while many more face harassment.

The past eleven years I have worked with numerous organizations in their efforts to encourage development of the rule of law through yearly visits to countries of the former Warsaw Pact and former Republics of the Soviet Union. In all those countries, gifted and courageous individuals are found who are willing to personally sacrifice to establish the rule of law and impartial administration of justice in their countries.

In September and October of 1991, Judge John Coughenhour and I taught at the Soviet Judicial Academy in Moscow. It was a remarkable time, just after the failure of the coup against Gorbachov and immediately before the collapse of the Soviet Union. At graduation of the class of judges from all over the Soviet Union, each judge was asked to tell what they hoped to achieve in their career. One judge from Kazakhstan related how he had been pressured by the KGB to ignore the law to assist them in the coup. He indicated he refused to do so because in a nation of slaves, the revolt of one slave was significant. I saw him many years later in a remote town in southern Kazakhstan where he was now Chief Judge, as proud and independent as ever.

Last year the American Bar Association established an Institute in Prague to train Eastern European Judges and lawyers. Our first class titled "Judging in a New Democratic Society" consisted of over forty judges, primarily from Balkan countries. There were universal stories of poor pay, poor working conditions, poor housing, inefficient and often corrupt administrators, and little public respect. Nonetheless, the judges were enthusiastic about their jobs, determined to change things in their countries, and hopeful for the future. Over the two week course there was an opportunity to learn their individual stories and understand what the personal challenges were for them.

One of the most striking was a judge from the Republic of Serbska, one of the three Bosnian republics. He was originally from a Serbian part of Yugoslavia, which was overrun by the Croats. His father was shot as he stood alongside him and their family home of centuries burned. He was forced to immigrate to a Serbian part of Bosnia. In the past three years he moved to thirteen different homes with his mother, trying to find some form of permanent housing.

When our class started he was one of the most rigid students, insisting that everything was absolutely perfect in his Republic while the other students, in contrast, described what they hoped to change in their countries. Shortly after class began and following discussions of the essence of a democratic government, he purchased a copy of a book on early travels through America and observations of American democracy. He began to ask questions about how democracy functioned and by the end of the class was an enthusiastic participant in our discussions. He returned home with a new vision of what he wanted to accomplish. We receive regular e-mails from him describing his efforts and his renewed hopes for a better legal system for his country.

Another was a judge serving in Yugoslavia at the time of the class. She had the magnificent Balkan name of Dragana and was the personification of that name with fiery red hair and a temperament to match. Her home was with her parents as she could not afford an apartment of her own on a judges salary. Shortly after class ended she was fired from her job on return to Yugoslavia for opposing the Milosivch regime through street demonstrations and speeches. She now has established a private organization to continue educating Yugoslav judges on how to function in their own new democratic society.

I became involved in working with the judges and legal system of Albania in 1994 through the efforts of a friend, Roger Sherrard, a Poulsbo lawyer. Six trips later, I still find some of the most touching stories of the indomnitability of the human spirit from that country.

Prior to 1990, Albania was one of the most repressive countries in the world. Enver Hoja ruled the country for almost forty years with an iron hand matched only by the regime in North Korea. Thousands were jailed or executed on no grounds other than suspicion of possible political disloyalty. With the death of Hoja in 1990 the repression gradually began to lessen. Many of the brightest people in Albania had been either executed or imprisoned by Hoja. The political prisoners not executed were released after his death. A program was developed where the brightest of those released could become assistant judges at the lowest court level with six months judicial training. Some were no more than political opportunists, but many became stalwart champions against oppression and corruption due to their own unjust sufferings. Nonetheless, they were looked upon with scorn due to the lack of a formal legal education, regardless of the fact that most of the legal studies for existing judges consisted of Marxist doctrine, which was no longer relevant.

In my first trip to that country in 1993, I met a group of judges from Skodra, a town in the north of Albania bordering on Montenegro. Of the five judges from that town at the judicial conference, four were judges who had previously been imprisoned for political crimes. They still bore the marks of torture on their bodies, but were serving with great pride to help alleviate the possibility of others suffering as they had. I continue to see one of those judges on each trip to Albania. At our last meeting I asked how he was doing. He told me, in general, well, but that the criminal elements tried in his court were using threats to attempt to influence his judgments. They threatened to kill him as he walked the four miles to his home every day from his courthouse. He refused a guard, saying that if that was their plan, he could not stop them, but threats would have no effect on his judgment.

One of the most striking events in Albanian judicial history was an incident in Gjiroskastra, a town in south central Albania in March of 1997. Prior to that, Albania was mired in the depths of numerous pyramid schemes that involved over half the wealth of that country. As with all pyramid schemes, they collapsed, taking down with them the savings of the most desperately poor in a country. With their failure, all state institutions collapsed. The country was totally out of control. Over one million Kalishnikoff rifles were taken from looted armories, as well as assorted heavy weapons. Unmanageable and angry mobs set fire to almost every state institution.

The courts were the first targets of the mobs, mostly criminally controlled, as the courts held all the criminal records of the country. The court in Gjirokastra was one of the oldest in the country and contained invaluable archives. Rather than surrender to the mobs attacking the courthouse, the judges and assistant judges decided to defend it. They organized into groups of four to five people, two judges and two or three assistant judges to defend the court with weapons 24 hours a day. The judges slept in the courthouse and at times were required to be involved in door-to-door fighting to mount a successful defense. This situation lasted for three months until the general election in June of 1997. The lowly assistant judges were central to the defense of the courthouse and in the forefront of the fighting. One who was actively involved later castigated his fellow judges at a judicial conference I attended; urging them to be brave, dedicated, and to resist corruption or the Mafia will swallow up everything in their country.

In many ways these stories, the last in particular, remind me of the efforts of our legal service agencies fighting a valiant effort to preserve the heart of our system of law, justice, and access to courts. This in the face of assaults on their very existence and unjust criticism of their programs and the ever-growing number of people with needs unserved.

Just this past month an initiative has occurred that illustrates the breadth of the effort needed to assist the poor. Columbia Legal Services, representing three homeless people, has filed a statewide class action lawsuit against the U.S. Postal service alleging that it discriminates against homeless people by refusing to allow general delivery mail at neighborhood post offices. The suit claims that the policy forces homeless people to travel long distances in order to retrieve their mail, violating the Postal Service's own statutes and unconstitutionally infringing on the people's right to receive and send mail. The attorney for Columbia noted that, "While most Americans take it for granted that a mail carrier will bring mail to their home six days a week without charge, the homeless are apparently entitled to no such expectation."

It is not just the large cases and broad sweeping issues that need attention. The real stories of justice are also found in the solution of problems that exist in the lives of individual people.

Theresa is a mother in Eastern Washington whose three young children were kidnapped by their father. Desperate for help, Maria had not seen her children in nearly two years when she finally found legal assistance from an LFW grantee organization. After a legal battle, Maria was finally joined with her children in a dramatic and tearful reunion.

Elaine is a woman living near Yakima whose husband was killed in a tragic accident. Alone and grieving, Elaine suddenly found herself a widow with three teenage sons, a mountain of debt, few financial resources, and no will. She was facing collections and foreclosure and didn't know where to turn. Fortunately, family members connected Elaine to an LFW grantee organization and soon a volunteer attorney represented her. Although Elaine is still struggling to recover from the loss of her husband, she has not lost her home and is beginning to re-establish a life for herself and her sons.

Through these and thousands of other similar cases each year, the Legal Foundation of Washington grantees strive to bring meaning to the word justice in our state. Making justice possible is accomplished each day by many unsung heroes.

David Kastle is a pro bono attorney who is in private practice in Edmonds. He volunteers through the Snohomish County Legal Assistance program. He carries from 5-6 pro bono cases at all times. He volunteers at the Legal Clinic which provides free advice to low-income people and, according to his legal assistant, he takes at least two of the cases back with him to his office when they need more than advice. One of his cases took more than 100 hours representing a mother and her developmentally disabled adult child which resulted in allowing her to successfully get a dissolution and stay in the family home for two additional years after her estranged husband tried to remove them from their home.

It is not just attorneys, but also office and support staff who make the system function.

Ellie Linde is the support staff for the entire CLEAR staff of 18 attorneys and paralegals who answer the CLEAR hotline to provide intake and advice to low-income callers from all over the state. She made more than 15,000 referrals this past year to follow up on all the brief services provided by the attorneys in her office last year.

The common thread of the stories I have shared, the work of Charles Goldmark, the staff, volunteers and supporters of LFW grantees these past fifteen years, and those throughout the world who work for justice and access, is that they have made their work the poetry of their lives. They have decided that enlistment in the cause of justice for all is important enough to justify a sacrifice of money, prestige, and time spent on less important issues. I am honored to be a part of this event which gives due recognition to those who strive to make our system of justice in our country, and the entire world, a reality for all.

-- Justice Robert F. Utter (Ret.), February 23, 2001