Rural justice affects many, but may serve few

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More than 55 million Americans get their justice off the main road. For them, the law is meted out in rural courthouses often presided over by part-time judges, argued by inadequately trained lawyers, and administered by overworked and underpaid court clerks. Consequently, the process is sometimes more convenient than constitutional, more community-oriented than concerned with individual rights, and particularly stacked against women, minorities, the poor -- and ``outsiders.''

These are the conclusions of a little-publicized but highly respected series of studies being conducted by the New Hampshire-based Rural Justice Center (RJC). The results coincide with other assessments made by judicial scholars, social activists, and legal experts.

``There's a lack of an independent judiciary and a weak adversary process [in many parts of rural America],'' says social activist Kathryn Fahnestock, one of the co-founders of RJC. ``Community knowledge is substituted for the Constitution,'' she says.

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Maurice D. Geiger, an authority on court reform, and Miss Fahnestock founded RJC in 1982 to focus on the court problems of rural America. `Nobody holds the system accountable'

The Geiger-Fahnestock team so far has conducted its research in off-the-beaten-path court systems in Vermont, Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio, and Michigan.

Among their findings:

Seventy-nine percent of the 3,082 courts of general jurisdiction in the United States are in rural areas. Yet these country courtrooms have been virtually ignored by the judicial reform movement of the past two decades.

With publicly funded legal services to the poor drastically reduced in recent years, rural areas have been hardest hit -- with the result being ever greater injustice for non-urban residents.

In many places, lack of funds, lack of expertise, inadequate knowledge about proper procedures, and even unfamiliarity with constitutional mandates have often resulted in an uneven, unequal, unresponsive judicial process.

Mr. Geiger says that the ``isolation of rural judges and court clerks also tends to undermine the system.'' He also says that ``nobody holds the system accountable from the outside.''

``Justice is administered by those who grew up in the community,'' says Miss Fahnestock. ``And what they want to do is preserve the peace and traditional community values.''

RJC -- which operates on a $250,000 annual budget from state contracts and private foundation grants -- offers counsel to court personnel and community groups seeking to upgrade their court processes. Areas of concern range from how legal documents are filed, to how bail and pretrial detention for defendants are determined, to how prosecutors sometimes overstep their authority.

Geiger and Fahnestock stress that they are not probing public corruption. They say their criticism of rural court procedures is meant to be ``loving'' and constructive. Admittedly, their assessments are candid, and sometimes harsh.

An RJC study in a North Carolina county reported, among other things, that the court tended to rubber stamp police and prosecutorial decisions; citizens were arrested capriciously; unduly high bail was set; and defendants were often pressured into pleading guilty. Laying groundwork for reform

Geiger and Fahnestock allow that this kind of justice system will not change overnight. But they insist that RJC has laid the groundwork for significant reforms that community leaders have pledged to implement.

Predictably, reformers and social activists tend to embrace the judicial reform team. Others in local court systems challenge the validity of study findings.

Nancy Habig, a school-board member and citizen activist in Dubois County, Ind., says judges and court personnel in her area balked at first at an RJC probe. ``They didn't want urban solutions to rural problems,'' she explains.

One aspect of what RJC investigations found in Dubois is common in smaller communities in the US. Geiger and Fahnestock call it ``comity.'' Generally, it speaks to courtesy and polite conduct. But in this context, explains Mrs. Habig, it means: ``You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.''

``It's not always a conscious thing. The judge and the prosecutor are friends. Sometimes they're related. People back off when they know people too well. . . . And the local paper only covers major cases in the courts,'' Habig says.

Dubois courts -- prodded by citizen oversight -- are slowly changing procedures and wiping out abuses, reports Habig. ``There are still things to work out,'' she admits. ``But we now know what can happen.''

RJC's approach is generally hailed by those who advocate court reform. But many warn that progress will be slow.

For instance, Albert Barney, long-time chief justice of Vermont's Supreme Court, says that local mores and loyalty tend to work against an effective justice system in small towns.

Judge Barney, who recently stepped down from the bench after 31 years of service, likens rural attitudes toward justice to whites' support of apartheid in South Africa. ``It's all in the name of protecting the community,'' he says.

But the Vermont jurist says that RJC is helping to neutralize this local bias by developing invaluable data for rural jurisdictions that are willing to adapt it to their own situations.

Another believer in court reform is Ernest Friesen, dean of the California Western School of Law, whom Maurice Geiger refers to as the nation's ``guru of court management.'' But Dean Friesen is pragmatic about how much can be accomplished in rural reform, and how quickly change might be effected.

Rural courts generally need closer state judicial supervision, more effective monitoring of their procedures, and better training for their personnel, he says. Poor, minorities fare worst

The law school dean also is concerned that justice is difficult to attain in a social setting where judges must travel from county to county to sit on cases, prosecutors serve part time, and court clerks are often forced (as a result of inadequate income) to moonlight by running motels and apartment houses.

Geiger and Fahnestock are particularly concerned about how badly the poor and minorities fare in rural courts. Several of their studies found that there is a strong correlation between poverty and the way people are treated by the courts. Furthermore, says Geiger, ``poor women get shortchanged even more than poor men.''

A basic premise of RJC is that the courts set the tone for how people generally behave. ``If people see that courts are lawless,'' Fahnestock says, ``it is easier for them to be lawless themselves.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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