The Ottumwa Courier

February 16, 2013

Safe access to justice

Court Calls

Judge Annette J. Scieszinski
submitted

OTTUMWA — When news broke about recent courthouse violence in Delaware, it hit close to home. Immediately, we grieve the human toll on the victims, their families and friends. Two judges working in that east-coast courthouse are my friends, and I naturally worry about the evolving impact the shootings will have on them personally and professionally, and on their colleagues and staff. In the larger picture of justice in the United States, the tragedy exacts a toll not readily seen, yet with broad implications for people across the country.

Courthouses are supposed to be safe havens where people go for protection under the Rule of Law — that guiding principle that when the law is applied fairly to all, it protects the vulnerable and stabilizes society. A key aspect of justice under the law is the ability to make a claim, have it addressed in a fair and orderly process and have it resolved peaceably. When courthouses are not perceived to be safe for the transactions of justice, people may be discouraged from exercising their rights or from demanding redress for wrongs.

In recent years the issue of “access to justice” has been in the spotlight — with much of the concern focused on helping the indigent get lawyer assistance, accommodating the disabled so they can fully participate at the courthouse and providing interpreters for those who don’t speak English. A much more pervasive and insidious barrier to justice, however, is the fear of physical harm in the public forum. International news accounts illustrate how readily people’s rights can be suppressed by intimidation.

Courthouse security is a thorny topic for legislators making policy in Des Moines, as well as for the people on the ground in Iowa’s 99 counties. It costs money, and it requires consistent attention to the details of keeping all of government’s customers safe. In particular, the state-run courts face dangers daily, reliant upon county-centric security policies that can turn on local politics, priorities and a run of luck. Delaware’s tragedy is one more wake-up call to immediate challenges confronting the modern court system.

For the promise of justice to have real meaning, people have to be confident they can get it, safely.  

Judge Scieszinski is a district-court judge from Albia. In 2005 she represented Iowa judges on the Iowa State Bar Association’s Courthouse Security Task Force. She may be reached at annette.scieszinski@iowacourts.gov.