The term equal justice gets thrown around a lot. It’s often heard in the context of a lack of equal justice under law. But what is equal justice? What does it look like? And, what doesn’t it look like?
If you’re looking for an answer, go see “Just Mercy” at your local movie theater. The film vividly portrays the harsh reality of what can happen when equal justice is missing from our justice system.
Equal Justice in “Just Mercy”
“Just Mercy” tells the real-life story of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard law graduate who moves to Alabama to represent clients who’ve been wrongfully convicted and lack adequate legal assistance. Many of Stevenson’s clients are on death row.
Throughout the movie, you see that many of the wrongful convictions stem from misconduct by law enforcement, insufficient representation from an attorney, or no legal representation at all. This lack of equal justice, which overwhelming impacts people of color and those who can’t afford a lawyer, is best summed up by Stevenson in the movie when he says, “We have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”
The lack of access to equal justice produces a shocking rate of error. For every nine people executed in the United States, one person on death row has been proven innocent.
The Legal Profession Must Lead in Equal Justice
If we as a legal profession believe in equal justice, this statistic cannot be ignored. The legal community must be at the forefront of ensuring equal justice for all. The Preamble to the Supreme Court of Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct states, “a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.”
In addition to seeing the film “Just Mercy,” I encourage you to read the book, and watch Stevenson’s well-known TED talk “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.” Exposing yourself to these realities will provide a better understanding of the issue and hopefully inspire you to help work toward change.
We all can do something. Yes, some people can do more than others depending on what stage of life you’re in and your personal and professional responsibilities such as workload, raising children, or caring for a parent. However, let’s make a promise that we aren’t going to be so overwhelmed by this issue that it stops us from trying.
I’m guilty of this too; I’m making the promise as well. Instead of being immobile around the issue of equal justice, I challenge you to identify one small thing you can do to make a change.
How Will you Commit to Equal Justice?
There are many places to start to find one thing you can do. The list below provides some ideas, but it’s by no means exhaustive:
- Check out the Pro Bono Opportunity Guide, which includes opportunities to support equal justice throughout Illinois;
- Look into the Illinois Supreme Court’s new program that assists with the backlog of criminal appeals;
- There are day-long expungement summits throughout Illinois that need attorney volunteers, such as one in Cook County on Saturday, June 6, 2020;
- If you lack the capacity to do volunteer work right now, donate to organizations focused on equal justice, such as Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative or these organizations across Illinois; or
- Attend the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism’s The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference on April 23, 2020, in Chicago, where practical ideas for better access to justice will be one of the many topics discussed.
I’ll even put some “skin in the game” and commit to one thing to improve equal justice for all. In the next month, I’ll contact Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and sign up for a pro bono case. Yes, you heard it here first! I’ve now publicly committed. Don’t let me be the only one. Share in the comments one thing you’ll do to make a difference and provide access to equal justice for those in need. As Stevenson said of the people he represents, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
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