IN 1982, justice-system reformers Kathryn Fahnestock and Maurice Geiger used rented cars and airline tickets with unlimited mileage to travel thousands of miles across the back roads and sparsely populated counties of the United States. Their mission: to examine rural court systems.The conditions they found spurred them to establish the Montpelier, Vt.-based Rural Justice Center (RJC), the only national organization in the United States that addresses the special needs of rural courts. Seventy-nine percent of US counties are considered rural. Courts in these counties serve 55 million Americans - more than 26 percent of the population - and have jurisdiction over 89 percent of the land. Yet, in many cases, rural courts operate differently from their urban counterparts. Part of the reason is the makeup of small communities, where resources and personnel are limited, and judges and court staff are often professionally and socially isolated. Moreover, improvements in the justice system have focused on urban courts, whose methods and solutions are often inappropriate for rural areas. "The practice of law in rural communities is not the practice of law that is depicted in the National Law Journal," Ms. Fahnestock says. Other obstacles exist. Rural individuals who live in close-knit societies are often under pressure to get along, Mr. Geiger says. Sometimes this translates into "comity" in the legal system - judges who avoid challenging the prosecution because they need the prosecutor's cooperation in order to dispose of cases, for example. And the lack of corrective mechanisms - such as a newspaper willing to be critical, a two-party political system, and a well-utilized appeal process - creates a system that is at tim es unfair to women, minorities, low-income individuals, and the uneducated. "The bad things that happen in rural courts are not caused by bad people, they're caused by good people doing bad things," explains Geiger. "It's so easy for the prosecutor, and the sheriff, and the police, and all the lawyers to get along by going along, and nobody is there to make them uncomfortable." Geiger, an attorney, and Fahnestock, who has worked extensively with community-based organizations, have both done independent court management consulting. They get most of the funding for the Center through federal and foundation grants, and individual contributions. In the nine years since the RJC started, Geiger and Fahnestock say they've helped bring about important changes in rural courts across the US through programs in rural court support, community assistance, and education. These programs include working with a community group to help the group's members understand the problems in their justice system and how to change it; educating judges and court managers about how courts are affected by the conditions and attitudes endemic to rural life; and offering assistance to help improve case-flow management and reduce court delays. The RJC doesn't solicit or barge in on rural courts and communities, but it is often invited by community-based groups aware of judicial shortcomings. Geiger and Fahnestock stress that a unique aspect of the RJC is its approach. "What gives our work integrity is we don't simply sit in our office and talk to the power structure. We get down in a community and do direct interviews," often with people in jail, says Geiger, who adds that it is sometimes risky, particularly when corrupt local officials are involved. On one occasion, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned them not to go to a specific county. Often, judges, lawyers, and court administrato rs resent their probes and questions. In Robeson County, N.C., the justice system has improved significantly since a group of ministers and clergy invited the RJC to come in 1983, says Robert Mangum, who worked as a minister in the county for 33 years. The system had several flaws: Many people were spending unnecessary time in jail waiting for a hearing; others were required to spend full days (sometimes 50 in a row) in the courthouse waiting for their case to be heard. In addition, a court-appointed defense system was inadequately serving poor and illiterate people. The RJC helped the county establish a bail-bond policy, improve the court calendaring process, and pointed out the need for a public-defender system. A new district attorney, a human-relat ions commission, and the county's first elected native American superior court judge have also been important changes in the mainly black and native American community. "They certainly made a great contribution to the process of change in the justice system of Robeson County, and it's now more open and more adequately provides defense for the indigent and undereducated," Reverend Mangum says. ONE current focus of RJC efforts is domestic-violence cases. Rural victims of domestic violence are particularly isolated from support, assistance, and protection; 12 percent of rural counties have never issued a protective order in a domestic violence case, says Fahnestock. The RJC is publishing a report on victims of domestic violence it will send to the presiding court judge in every rural US county. It has also developed a two-day curriculum on family violence for rural judges. B. B. Schraub, an administrative judge who presides over 29 mostly rural counties in Texas, agrees that rural judges face different problems than urban judges. He cites judicial isolation, lack of facilities, and the "familiarity" factor as the most challenging aspects of the work. "A judge in a big city can sit there for 25 years and maybe never have anybody he knows very well come into his courtroom, whereas in a rural area that might happen on a regular basis, and I think that sometimes makes it hard on the judge," he says. "If they're a close enough friend you sometimes have to back off and find another judge." ve got to recuse myself in a lawsuit here shortly," says A. L. Sommerville, a trial court judge who presides over four counties in rural central West Virginia. "The motion is still pending because I prejudged it quite frankly, and I knew all the parties." Judge Sommerville says comity and unfair practices are more prevalent in states where court systems are locally funded. "Anytime you go to local funding you go to local problems, you run into local prejudices and local politics, and it just doesn't work." In West Virginia, magistrate and circuit courts depend on state funding. Fahnestock says it's hard to measure how much impact the RJC has had. "Some judges we've worked with have really changed what they do, and in other places it's totally untouched." "When we started the RJC," she says, "no one within the field of court administration or the legal community was paying attention to rural courts, to the needs of rural judges and court clerks and to what happened to people.... It isn't trendy now, but there really is awareness."