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Law Day: A legal system for all

Published May 1, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The opening words to the Preamble of the Constitution — "WE THE PEOPLE" — unite the people of this great nation in our efforts to fulfill the promise of equal rights and privileges for all. The words resonate, especially with this year's Law Day theme, "Realizing the Dream: Equality for All." The theme pays tribute to America's civil rights movement and its profound advancement of the ideal of equality under the law.

This year marks 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and called upon our nation to live up to the great promise of equality for all. The legacy of the civil rights movement can be seen in the great strides that have been made against discrimination in all its destructive forms.

As King wrote in a letter from the Birmingham jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

An important role of the judicial branch of government is to ensure that the lessons from our nation's sometimes unsettling history are not forgotten and that the rule of law is upheld. The Utah state courts strive to provide fair and efficient access to the court by creating programs that are accessible to all.

For those who speak limited to no English, the courts' Interpreter Program provides language assistance in all court-related matters. Interpreters are available at any point in an individual's contact with the court — whether it is a criminal or civil case or a juvenile court probation meeting. A roster of trained spoken-language and American Sign Language interpreters is maintained by the court to ensure that the highest level of interpretation is provided.

The courts' Self-Help Center also works to provide information and tools to anyone accessing Utah's state court system. Feedback has shown that people frustrated by the judicial system are relieved to talk with someone who guides them through the court process, treats them with respect and gives them practical answers to their questions.

A "virtual program," the Self-Help Center provides free services via telephone, email, and text messaging, such as explaining court procedures, assisting with court forms, helping navigate the court's website, and explaining what to do in court and once an order is issued. The center's staff provides helpful information on a wide range of legal matters at all court levels, and staff attorneys are available to assist in either English or Spanish. Although the staff cannot give legal advice, the center works with local programs to connect people to helpful resources.

Finally, the state judiciary is initiating a Community Forum program to provide the justice system with opportunities to better understand the public's needs and to help the public better understand the justice system. The goals of the program are to offer a means for the public to learn about the courts, provide an opportunity for judges and court leaders to hear from the public and make available a forum for discussing mutual concerns and possible solutions. This program will benefit judges and court personnel by providing a means to better understand the issues in our communities, and the system as a whole will benefit by developing appropriate responses to public concerns.

Today, as we reflect on this year's Law Day theme, know that your Utah courts work every day to ensure that the opening words to the Preamble of the Constitution are upheld in courthouses throughout the state and that justice for all is a reality for all citizens.

Matthew B. Durrant is chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.