Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe ’66, now a senior Justice Department counselor, received a standing ovation from the nation’s state chief justices last week after challenging them to take immediate steps to improve access to justice for juveniles, the poor and the middle class.

The following article by Tony Mauro in the National Law Journal reported on Tribe’s address, including his proposals for reform.

“The problems facing our state judicial systems can only be described as deplorable,” said Tribe in an impassioned July 26 speech in Vail, Colorado before the annual conference of chief justices and state court administrators.

Calling on the judges to engage in a form of “judicial activism”—not ideological, but rather, as he put it, the “opposite of passivity” —Tribe laid out specific measures that the chief justices could take to make pro bono and pro se representation easier, as well as to enforce the rights of juveniles and indigents to counsel.

Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, current president of the Conference of Chief Justices, said Tribe’s message was “very well received” by the 47 chief justices in attendance. “I was watching, and we were all taking notes.” Jefferson added, “The message he gave was inspirational. As chief justices, we can do no better than to spend our time making sure there is access to the courthouse.”

Tribe, a leading liberal constitutional scholar for decades, said he had left the “relatively quiet groves of academe” to try to “fix things” and help make the justice system more humane and just. In his five months on the job as senior counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. for access to justice, Tribe said, “I have come face to face with the anxiety and desperation of ordinary citizens, who look to our legal system for their fair share of decent treatment.”

While applauding “the integrity and efficacy of American courts,” Tribe said no one should “condone indifference to the early warnings of disintegration to which some of you have called sober attention.”

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