At the Tipping Point: State Courts and the Balance of Power

On November 10th, the City Bar hosted its 59th Annual Benjamin N. Cardozo Lecture, featuring Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Margaret H. Marshall. Her speech, At the Tipping Point: State Courts and the Balance of Power, described the pressures facing modern state courts, which are increasingly caught at the epicenter of cultural phenomena, from foreclosure and bankruptcy to family issues. Before closing, Chief Justice Marshall called for action within the profession and out to increase funding and access to justice within state courts.

Stressing the importance of state courts in balancing the application of U.S. law, Justice Marshall warned, “State courts are vital to our national scheme of limited public power. They are where an overwhelming majority of people go to obtain justice. Yet in many ways state courts are becoming our nation’s most fragile public institutions. The vulnerability of today’s state courts imperils the principal of judicial independence, and casts a shadow over the future of democracy.”

Justice Marshall cited figures describing the strain: In 2007, there were 384,330 cases filed in federal district and appellate courts, not including bankruptcies. This compares to 47.3 million cases filed in state courts, not including traffic offenses. “By some estimates, state courts account for over 97% of all litigation in the United States, including 99% of all criminal cases,” Justice Marshall said.

You can read Justice Marshall’s full speech here.

In November, The New York Times published an editorial inspired by Judge Marshall’s speech, “State Courts at the Tipping Point” (New York Times, 11/24/09), echoing her call for support of state courts, stating, “[A]t some point, slashing state court financing jeopardizes something beyond basic fairness, public safety and even the rule of law. It weakens democracy itself.”

The Cardozo Lecture series was initiated in 1941 to honor U.S. Supreme Court Justice Cardozo’s love for the law, passion for justice, and sympathy for humanity. Past speakers have included former US Supreme Court Chief Justices Earl Warren and William H. Rehnquist, along with many other notable members of the legal profession.

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