John C. Sheldon


When the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools in 1954, it acknowledged this social truth: assigning separate public facilities to separate classes of people fosters inequality among those classes. Although Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka addressed only educational facilities, the Court quickly broadened the scope of its decision, applying it to racial discrimination in or at public beaches, buses, golf courses, parks, municipal airport restaurants and state courtrooms. And although Brown addressed only racial discrimination, it quickly became the basis for condemning many forms of discrimination, including race, religion, wealth, gender, age, and disability. What gave Brown this elasticity was its pragmatism, its faith in experience over logic. Theoretically, separate public systems for separate classes of people can be equal; logically, Plessy v. Ferguson ought to be right. But it just never is. Logic can distort and deceive. One would think that the legal profession--especially the legal profession-- would be sensitive to that lesson. Unfortunately, however, just the opposite is true, and it worries me enough to present the issue here. It is my recent experience that legal professionals seem so beholden to logic and the rules that logic spawns that they will struggle to preserve such rules even when the result is injustice. What first caused me this concern was the report of Maine's Court Unification Task Force (CUTAF), a body that convened in the late 1990's to study “how to unify [Maine's] District and Superior Courts” in order to achieve “the effective and efficient provision of judicial services to the public.” The ultimate inspiration for this inquiry was the American Bar Association's long-time advocacy of trial court unification (or consolidation) on two grounds: it can offer considerable efficiencies to both civil dockets and criminal dockets, and “[m]ost important [ly], it can reduce or eliminate the appearance of second-class justice that is often associated with courts of ‘inferior jurisdiction.”’ What CUTAF finally produced, however, was a report (later enacted into law) that achieved not greater trial court unification, but just the opposite: more than ever, Maine's trial courts now resemble a caste system.

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