By Reena K. Shah

Dædalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading intellectual journals, has published the first open access issue in its history – and it is completely devoted to the topic of Access to Justice. The Winter 2019 issue of Dædalus features 24 essays that examine the national crisis in civil legal services facing poor and low-income Americans: from the challenges of providing quality legal assistance to more people, to the social and economic costs of an often unresponsive legal system, to the opportunities for improvement offered by new technologies, professional innovations, and fresh ways of thinking about the crisis. We are excited to share these thought-provoking articles with you in the MSBA Weekly.

Through the publication, the Academy is signaling the importance of the topic to itself and to society at large. The inclusion of Access to Justice in the journal is part of a larger, ongoing Academy effort to gather information about the national need for improved legal access, study innovations piloted around the country to fill this need, and advance a set of clear, national recommendations for closing the justice gap.

The Academy’s focus on Access to Justice is welcome because often the “justice gap” is thought of as an issue of supply and demand for legal services, rather than a fundamental problem at the core of our democracy that requires not just lawyers, but experts from many different disciplines of society to solve. The Academy’s involvement in the Access to Justice problem is also a cause for hope because of the stature of the Academy and its ability to analyze complex social, political and intellectual topics in a multi-disciplinary and non-partisan way.

The Academy is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. It was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, John Hancock, and 60 other scholar-patriots who contributed prominently to the establishment of the new nation, its government and the United States Constitution, and who understood that a new republic would require institutions able to gather knowledge and advance learning in service of the public good.

Today, it is charged with a dual function: to elect to membership the finest minds and most influential leaders, drawn from science, scholarship, business, public affairs, and the arts, from each generation, and to conduct policy studies in response to the needs of society. The Academy’s elected members join with other experts in cross-disciplinary efforts to produce reflective, independent, and pragmatic studies that inform public policy and advance the public good.

The involvement of the Academy in the Access to Justice effort is the latest sign of a growing national and even global understanding of how critical the Access to Justice issue is and how it undergirds many of our society’s efforts towards a healthy democracy grounded in the rule of law. For example, in 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which for the first time included an Access to Justice goal, underscoring the interrelationship of justice to our understanding of global well-being and sustainability. Further in 2016, when the first Trump budget zeroed out funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the Congressionally funded entity that provides the majority of funding for civil legal aid organizations across the country, leaders from both sides of the aisle and from a multitude of sectors that are not traditionally associated with legal services – including sports, business and economics – penned op-eds and successfully advocated to not only continue, but increase, funding for civil legal aid around the country.

As awareness about Access to Justice issues grow, so grows the understanding that we need many different voices – Democrats and Republicans – and voices from a multitude of disciplines, speaking up for how important it is for our society to fulfill the promise of equal justice for all and helping us through their range of expertise to solve this complex and vexing problem. The Maryland Access to Justice Commission, like the 40 other Commissions across the country, is integrally involved in the project to help raise more awareness about Access to Justice issues and have more diverse voices speak about their importance to our democracy.