June 2015 Bar Bulletin
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June 2015 Bar Bulletin

Somewhere I Read: "... one nation ... indivisible, with liberty and justice for all"

By Marc Lampson

 

"As the shape of society and its laws change, law librarians have been called upon to respond to the need.... In fact, whenever there has been a change in the socio-legal structure, law libraries have been expected to respond."
- Christine A. Brock1

Inequality shapes - and disfigures, I would say2 - American society today in significant ways: "Inequality is greater now than it has been at any time in the last century, and the gaps in wages, income, and wealth are wider here than they are in any other democratic and developedeconomy."3

We live in "two Americas" in every realm of our everyday life: one America for the relative few who are very rich, one America for the rest of us.4 This is true in health,5 housing,6 transportation,7 education8, even water;9 and, of course, in access to the legal system and to legal information. Public libraries, including public law libraries, have responded to these inequalities by reshaping the resources, services and the public spaces available to library patrons.

That we have a two-tiered legal system, one for the rich, and one for the rest of us, was long ago recognized - and lamented - by Reginald Heber Smith in his study of legal aid efforts, published in 1919, Justice and the Poor, in which he said:

The administration of American justice is not impartial, the rich and the poor do not stand on an equality before the law, the traditional method of providing justice has operated to close the doors of the courts to the poor, and has caused a gross denial of justice in all parts of the country to millions of persons.10

Nearly a century later, the two tiers may only be more stark, as thoroughly detailed in two recent books - one by Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (2014),11 and an earlier one by Glenn Greenwald, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (2011).12 Greenwald concludes his work in part as follows:

The degradation of the rule of law as an equalizing force in the United States is both a cause and an effect of rapidly intensifying inequality in other areas of American life. The greater the disparities in wealth and power become, the more unequal the law becomes - and the more unequal the law is, the more opportunities it creates for the wealthy and powerful to reinforce their advantages.13

Reshaping public law libraries to respond to inequality in the Information Age has been an ongoing effort. When the cost of printed primary legal resources that were once free to any library visitor rose dramatically and when those materials were increasingly locked into pay-for-view electronic databases that ordinary humans could not afford, law libraries cut back on their print resources, but negotiated limited licenses so patrons could access these materials online.


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