Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah sees a threatened future for the state’s independent judicial system without a better informed legislature and public as to the role of the courts.

Last week, Justice Hannah provided his “State of the Judiciary” speech to an Arkansas Bar Association audience in Hot Springs. The state’s chief justice outlined positives and negatives from the recently concluded legislative session.

“It was a difficult political environment, with differences of opinion about policy choices, both within and outside the profession,” Hannah said in prepared remarks to the bar. He highlighted several encouraging developments from the session, including better funding for court employees and language interpreters as well as a cost-of-living adjustment for judges.

“Now, I turn to what I consider the most important issue that we are facing,” Hannah said. “During the legislative session the experiences which were, without doubt, the most frustrating and disturbing for me, were conversations with people who expressed no understanding or appreciation of the separate and distinct roles of our executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

“I want to focus the remainder of my remarks on this single issue which, without being overly dramatic, when I say that I believe this issue is so vital that if left unaddressed, it will threaten the future of our judicial system.

“I am not referring to disagreements about specific policy disputes or differences of opinions about where we draw the lines on issues of inter-branch relations. That kind of conflict has always existed and, in fact, is healthy for our democracy. The constitutional framers intended for there to be an inherent tension among the branches of government. What I am talking about is much more basic than that. It appears to be a movement toward a failure to recognize the value of, or for the need of independent branches of government generally, (checks and balances) and the role of an independent court system more specifically.”

Hannah is partially referring to the contentious issue of tort reform that became a politically strident debate in the session. Lawmakers adjourned without referring a proposed constitutional amendment to address provisions struck down in a 2011 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling.

Business interests and trial lawyer representatives clashed over how to establish rules of civil procedure and caps on damages. In the end, a committee that refers proposed constitutional amendments could not come to a consensus on a measure.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association are both debating the possibility of competing citizen-referred tort reform proposals for the 2014 ballot.

“I am well aware that, even within leadership positions in our state, there is a lack of understanding of such basic concepts as separation of powers, federalism, the supremacy clause, judicial review or the binding nature of precedent – the rule of law. This lack of knowledge produces real consequences,” Hannah said.

“It can lead to bad public policy, but, just as importantly, it can produce a decline in the public’s trust and confidence in the judicial system, which we need for the judiciary to function as do the other two branches of government,” he added.

Hannah noted that the debate he was framing is happening across the country, not just in Arkansas. He cited public survey data that underscored a lack of knowledge by the general public as to the roles of the different branches of government and the partisan versus independent political nature of the judiciary in the U.S.

He said he wanted to accelerate and beef up public outreach efforts in order to better educate voters about the judicial branch of government.

“Today I am announcing a major initiative on behalf of the judicial branch to engage in an intensive and comprehensive public outreach campaign to inform and engage our communities in a conversation about the foundations of our democracy.

“We are already doing some work toward educating students and adults. We stream our oral arguments. More than 600 students and adults have visited the Justice Building since January. We plan to acquire interactive displays and activities and place them in the justice building so that our visitors may learn more about the courts. We travel twice a year for our Appeals on Wheels program, which has proved to be a very popular and successful outreach program,” said Hannah.

He said forthcoming projects include a multi-media presentation and set of materials designed for adults, which will “emphasize the foundation principals of democracy; the roles of each of the branches of government; and the importance of an independent judiciary to a free and fair society.”

Hannah also said he wanted to recruit and organize a speaker’s bureau of judges and lawyers for civic clubs and gatherings at the local level; establish moderated discussions involving judges, lawyers, and local legislators; and reorganize and re-energize outreach to media and journalists.

“We will organize and encourage a program which is already used by some of our trial judges known as ‘A View from the Bench,’ which involves inviting every member of the House and Senate to join a member of the judiciary for a judicial ride-along. Legislators will be invited to spend a day with a judge in chambers and in the courtroom to get a first-hand view of courts and the court process. The feedback from participating legislators in this program is extremely positive,” Hannah said.

Hannah also said his initiative would include outreach to teachers and business leaders across the state.

A first-of-its-kind Judicial Branch Leadership Council will convene on September 6 at the Justice Building in Little Rock to kick off the activities.

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