'Lot of problems' with the legal system, says Colorado Chief Justice



Chief Justice Michael Bender
  • Chief Justice Michael Bender

Last Friday, Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court Michael Bender addressed a room full of local litigators and judges at the Briarhurst Manor Estate for the El Paso County Bar Association's annual Law Day Dinner.

The topic?

"The legal community — and I mean by that the academy, those who teach; the bar, those that practice; and the judges — are really not fully satisfying the needs of the community," Bender said. "And there’s a lot of problems."

Bender's main points were that the system is underfunded, the industry has done a poor job of educating young people how the rule of law protects the public interest; and that lawyers cost too damn much. (The latter is apparently OK to poke the legal profession about after Bender enjoyed a career of large fees.)

"You have a legal profession that is extremely high-priced," he said. "We all have to make a living — you know, I have five kids and I put them through schools and so forth, and I understand — but we, as lawyers, have to think about... I mean, when I became a judge, I couldn’t afford my own fees, if I got in trouble. My hourly rate was too high — it’s true! I used to say, ‘A retainer makes me as concerned about this case as you are.’ You know, it’s a rule of necessity.

"But the truth is that we have priced ourselves, in large measure, out of the market for lots of people’s needs."

(For what it's worth, a 2008 California study by attorney Ronald Burdge said the average attorney's fee across all fields of law is $325 per hour.)

Bender went to expound upon a system that sees 40 to 50 cases at a time on a single court's docket.

"We then have a problem, I think, of total under-resourcing of the judiciary itself — the system. You have the seen the lines get longer, to get into the courthouse — am I right? Yes, I am. You have seen the dockets get longer — am I right? Yes, I am," the chief justice said sardonically. "And this is not because of the recent economic recession. It’s aggravated by the recent recession, but it’s long time coming. We do things by video, instead of people coming to have their say for 10 or 15 minutes. We take all kinds of shortcuts, because we don’t have the resources; and we haven’t had them — we’re resource-starved, and it’s not just in Colorado, it’s across the country. It’s a very sad commentary on our system."

The judge finished with commentary on the state's ability — or lack thereof — to help out the poorly financed folks in need of legal help.

"Legal aid is nonexistent in this state. People don’t have access to the system, " Bender said. "They don’t have access to the system for lots of different reasons. [But] in terms of representing people that are poor, every economist that I have heard in the last two years have all said that we have an increasing population of people that are essentially poor, and are in indigency."

The solution? Well, no solutions were to be found at this dinner, where Bender's speech wasn't exactly a hit with the crowd of litigators. But I guess it's nice that he notices the problems.

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