Jon D. Levy


In 1972, the astronauts of Apollo 17, NASA’s final manned-mission to the Moon, took a photograph of the entire hemisphere of Earth. The photograph shows the continents of Africa and Antarctica in hues of red and brown, surrounded by the vibrant blue oceans and topped by swirling white clouds. It has become an iconic image. Studying the Earth from afar, Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17’s commander, reported to the Houston command center with just a touch of irony: “We’re not the first to discover this, but we’d like to confirm, from the crew of Apollo 17, that the world is round.” Likewise, the significance of the increasing number of people who appear, pro se, without a lawyer, in America’s civil courts is best understood when viewed from a distance. The image of the Earth floating in space captured by the Apollo 17 crew teaches that, notwithstanding the planet’s billions of people and diverse habitats, it is, in the end, a single ecosystem. Perspective matters. This is certainly true for the civil justice system. A broad perspective allows us to appreciate the far-reaching social consequences that flow from the manner in which we deliver civil justice. Spend a few days observing the people who pass through the doors of any courthouse in Maine and you will undoubtedly appreciate that civil justice touches people from every walk of life. Participating in a court case is among the most direct and memorable experiences many people have with their government. Whether it concerns the custody or adoption of a child, the break-up of a business, the collection of a debt, or protection from domestic violence, the decisions that get made in civil courts have life-altering consequences. The outcome in a single case frequently has a ripple effect that extends far beyond the participants, reaching their families, neighbors, communities, employers, and others. This is where a broad perspective is essential. Such a perspective demonstrates that the continued vitality of civil justice depends on whether we assure that every person who is party to a case involving basic human needs such as housing, food, health care, and child custody, receives the minimum level of legal assistance needed to assure that the person makes informed decisions, the process is fundamentally fair, and that justice is done.

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