As I write this, we are several weeks into a pandemic-required transformation into a fully online law school. I am grateful for the technology that permits us to stay connected, but I miss the daily face-to-face interactions with students and colleagues. When I reflect on the magazine’s theme for this issue – the justice gap – I think back fondly to the hustle and bustle of a full atrium on the first day of orientation.
During orientation week at St. Thomas, the first case our students read is Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in which Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes proclaimed that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in upholding forced sterilizations against women deemed mentally deficient. While students are alarmed by the state laws in force at the time – the product of the eugenics movement – they are also troubled to learn that the state’s evidence of “three generations of imbeciles” was flimsy at best, and readily available positive evidence of Carrie Buck’s intelligence was never even presented to the courts. Indeed, no evidence was introduced on Buck’s behalf, as her conflicted attorney made no meaningful attempt to advocate for her.
Buck v. Bell is a jarring example of the injustices that result when our legal system does not give a voice to those whose lives depend on it. Unfortunately, the voiceless are very much with us today. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) reports that 86% of the civil legal problems experienced by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal help. According to the World Justice Project’s survey data, the United States ranks dead last (36th out of 36) among high-income countries on the question of whether people can access and afford civil justice.
As a Catholic law school, what is our responsibility? Pope Francis has urged all of us to recognize our “duty to hear the voice of the poor.” As lawyers, we not only have the duty to hear the poor, we have the power to lift the voices of the poor, to ensure that they are heard by the legal system’s decision-makers.
This recognition must shape who we are as a law school community, and who we aspire to be. In choosing Buck v. Bell as the first case our students read, we hope that they are jolted by injustice. But that’s only the starting point on a career-long journey. We hope that our students and alumni will always view St. Thomas Law as a community that helped motivate and equip them to confront and challenge injustice. This issue of St. Thomas Lawyer explains how we’re working every day to make that hope a reality.
If you have ideas for how we can improve in this effort, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 962-4838.