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Q&A: After 100 Years, American Judicature Society Still Advocating for Courts

In July, the American Judicature Society (AJS) celebrates its 100th year of advocacy on behalf of the courts. AJS President Dennis Courtland Hayes discusses his organization’s history and advocacy, including a recent statement urging more funding for the federal Judiciary. To view recorded excerpts, click on the video player.


Question: Tell us about the American Judicature Society’s history and mission, and how it plans to celebrate its upcoming 100th Anniversary.

We’re very excited to be celebrating our centennial. It was July 15, 1913, that the organization was founded by 10 very special people—lawyers, judges at the time who were interested in modernizing the court. Back in the early 1900s, the American justice system suffered issues related to packing of courts. Officials were appointing friends and allies to the court, and the result was that many Americans lost faith in the system. Our founders got together … and incorporated the American Judicature Society for the purpose of fostering and advocating efficiency and effectiveness in our court system, so that it would be fairly administered, and to get past some of the political corruption that was affecting our justice system. 

After a hundred years, we are now headquartered in Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and we are going to be celebrating at the upcoming American Bar Association convention. … Our luncheon will have a very dynamic speaker, California Chief Justice  Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Question: Who belongs to the AJS, and whom does it serve?

One of the strengths of AJS is that we are a bipartisan organization. Anybody can join who believes in the fair administration of justice, who supports the election or selection of competent, qualified judiciary, so we have lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

One of the things we have to overcome in the American Judicature Society is the name “Judicature.” …. It simply means the administration of justice. But it tends to lead some people to think that it’s an organization of lawyers and judges. We’re much more than that. We have individual members, we have several chapters, [such as] Washington and Hawaii. Many, most judges, I think, know about AJS through our journal Judicature, and our Judicial Conduct Reporter. We, of course, being in our centennial year, invite judges to continue to join.

Question: How do you convince average Americans that the courts need and deserve public support?

The founding fathers had very good reason for establishing co-equal branches of government, the judicial system being less political. The rule of law is vital to the success of our form of government, and the judges in America have a very big job in maintaining that integrity … From the most affluent citizen to the homeless man or woman on the street, they want to know that that justice will be dispensed fairly, not because of politics. It’s just important that we all maintain the rule of law in this country so that people accept that what happens in the courts is based on law, and not on influence.

Question: The AJS recently issued a statement asking that federal courts be preserved from the worst effects of sequestration. Can you expand on your reasoning?

One of the most difficult realities regarding our judicial system is that, of the three branches of government, the judiciary does not control its own budget. The federal judiciary is only… two-tenths of one percent of the total annual budget and already suffering shortages. We have to be very concerned about access to justice. If the average American, and every American, is going to have faith in the system … we need to make sure everyone has access to justice. We at AJS have written editorials and articles that have trumpeted the possibilities of sequestration, what that might mean to the fair delivery of services. And hopefully that message is getting out to everyone.

Question: Can you tell about other AJS issues over the years, especially including those that affect the federal courts?

At the onset of AJS, the judiciary was not in a good way. Americans had lost a lot of faith in the judicial system, because of the way that it was administered. At the founding of AJS, we set out to do things like create a National Judiciary Act, which in fact was adopted by states across the country in building a justice system that would be independent and fair. We set out a model judicial code of ethics. We put forth reforms that got rid of unethical judges. … Recently AJS published the Eyewitness Identification Study. That’s gotten a lot of notice and recognition across America, which we hope will lead to making it much harder for anybody who is innocent to be convicted of any crime in this country. And that leads to more faith in the system, and support for it.

Question: How would you describe the main threats facing our courts?

The main threat, as I see it, is our failure—“our” meaning Americans’ failure—to understand and hold up the importance of an independent judiciary. … So our need to get out the message remains, and what we hear loud and clear [is] we need to address people in different forms, electronically, we need to reach people where they are. We need to reach younger audiences, we need to build coalitions. … We need to reach people who haven’t been traditionally at the table. [As one example], the demographics in our country is changing, as we know. There are communities that have grown, that need to … be at the table to understand it, so that they have faith in the system.

Question: What plans does AJS have for its next 100 years?

We’re continuing and improving what we do in the communication of our work. We are … updating our web site so that we will be able to publish electronically our very popular Judicature magazine, our Judicial Conduct Reporter. We’re holding CLE’s, We have our Center for Judicial Ethics, which is putting on a seminar, as it does each year, for judges studying the area of judicial ethics, and disciplinary actions that flow from that.

We’re continuing the same things we’ve done over the last 100 years. … An independent judiciary is as much under attack now as it was in 1913, unfortunately, and so we’re redoubling our efforts to communicate more, better, to people in the street, those most affected by the judicial system, the importance of an independent judiciary.

We have several thousand members. We’re trying to grow our membership, which is always a challenge for any 501(c)(3) organization. Contributions to AJS are tax-deductible.We’re very proud of our 100-year history, and if we can get others to support us as they have in the past, we look forward to our next 100 years.

Related Topics: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts