Presidential protector of democracy’s heart

Political attacks and legal funding cuts are blows to the very soul of society, hears David Lee

WITH a name like William T Robinson III, he could only come from the United States. Yet if anyone thought for one moment that he might be a scheming, wealth-obsessed stereotype of corporate legal America, they could not be more wrong.

The president of the American Bar Association (ABA) is known simply as Bill, and he is as passionate an advocate of the judicial system as you are likely to meet. He has described justice as “the heart and soul of constitutional democracy” – and fears that core purpose is under threat, from savage funding cuts that have had a “devastating” impact on state courts.

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“It has not happened overnight but has been accelerated by the economic downturn since 2008,” he explains. “Many state legislatures have resorted to cutting back on funding courts as a source of revenue to apply to other demands that have more political clout.”

Last year, 42 of 50 states cut back on court funding. “This is unacceptable, and the ABA will continue to work hard to communicate to the public that their rights and interests are at stake. The cuts have involved a delay in the processing of judicial matters and court proceedings. We have all heard the expression ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’. That is certainly true in the US.”

Robinson gives two stark examples: “In early 2011, the new administration in New York cut $178 million from its court budget. This was followed by paying off a significant number of employees. The courts in New York now close every day at 4:30pm – even if a witness is almost finished or a jury is close to concluding its deliberations. That means the matters scheduled for the next day are pushed back, and it goes on and on. Delay leads to more delay and that denies access to justice.

“This is going on all over the country. In the last two years, California has cut $350m from its courts budget and in fall 2011, in the San Francisco Bay area, 29 of 63 courtrooms were shuttered, and 40 per cent of court personnel laid off.”

Robinson feels too many legislatures are treating justice as a “line item” for budgeting, rather than the way he sees it – as “an independent co-equal branch of government”.

When asked what he thinks about proposals to cut court funding in Scotland, he is hesitant to make specific comment, but says: “As lawyers in Scotland, US and around the world, we are officers of the court and have privileges and responsibilities, and among those there is none greater than speaking out for our courts as the cornerstone of democracy and freedom.”

Although he is cautious in saying it, Robinson is clearly concerned about comments concerning the judiciary from presidential candidates such as Newt Gingrich.

Choosing his words carefully, he says: “The ABA will continue to resist any attempt to politicise or in any way improperly influence the independent decision-making authority of the courts and the judges in the US. When certain candidates for president suggested that if elected, they would go so far as to bring justices of the Supreme Court to Capitol Hill to answer questions about and justify judicial decisions, the ABA did not hesitate to rise up and publicly protest.

“Any suggestion of doing that is a clear violation of the balance of powers among our branches of government – and the checks and balances between these three branches have been one of the key elements in a constitutional democracy that has served our country so well for over 200 years.”

Robinson has been a member of the ABA (which is voluntary) for 40 years, and one of its leaders for a quarter of a century. At the age of 67, he is still a sprightly and dapper figure with a razor-sharp mind – and has no immediate intention of retiring.

“Five years ago, I changed law firms. My law firm had decided to go for mandatory retirement, which from my perspective is a four-letter word.” A number of firms made proposals and Robinson joined Frost Brown Todd, based in Florence, Kentucky: “Quite a few of the most successful lawyers are well over 65 and I will return there in the autumn as the immediate past president of the ABA.”

Robinson has been in civil litigation for his whole career, specialising more recently in commercial litigation, including extensive work in medical malpractice and product liability. Yet this is only part of Bill Robinson the lawyer: “I have a passion for the profession and the rule of law. I believe I have a calling to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Voluntary service, including pro bono representation for those who cannot afford it, is part of my professional DNA. This is the case for many other lawyers I know too – it’s not what we do, it’s what we are.

“We take great pride in professional fulfilment of our voluntary service in the same way we do in providing professional services to clients. It is not measured in terms of I do or don’t get paid. The work of a lawyer is not quantified by monetary reward.

“It has always fascinated me that most of the volunteer leaders in the law are exceedingly successful in private practice. I am convinced that over time, volunteer service and work for the organised bar is energising; it charges our batteries and gives us a sense of complete professional accomplishment. Rather than taking away from our work, it enhances our performance.”

Robinson believes this is intrinsically linked to good leadership: “Good leadership is directly related to a person’s willingness never to ask another to do what he or she would not first do themselves. It’s about cooperation, coordination and achieving success together – not delegating responsibility and skimming the cream from the top of every opportunity. It is amazing what we can accomplish when we don’t worry who takes the credit.”

Robinson knows huge global economic challenges lie ahead – but he is a “born optimist” – “Change is the only constant in life and brings with it both challenges and opportunities. It is the ability to identify opportunities and translate them into progress for clients and law firms that is key to continued growth and success in the professional arena.”

But is he optimistic about the future of US courts – and justice generally? “Yes. I am optimistic that adequate funding of our courts will be achieved and we will make progress on this critical issue because it is key to representative democracy. This crisis in court funding in the US – and apparently in Scotland too – gives lawyers the chance to stand up for what really counts.”