My name is Michele Statz, and I’m an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth. I’m also an anthropologist of law, which means that I talk to a lot of different people and then contextualize their expert perspectives within broader realities of space, economy, politics, and funding structures, along with more abstract things like social norms, positionality, and intersecting ideas about gender, ethnicity, race, ability—and also professional identity. I am really honored to have this job.
My current research, and the reason I’m here, is a three-year study of rural access to justice across northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. Since 2017, I’ve been traveling across the region to conduct interviews with civil legal aid attorneys and staff, private attorneys, district court and tribal judges, and area stakeholders.
I’ve also had one on one interviews, conducted focus groups, and surveyed over 100 low-income rural community members in our region. In these conversations, we talk about their needs and concerns, their experiences with attorneys and in courtrooms, what it’s like to live in this area, and the challenges they face in accessing healthcare, housing, employment, disability benefits, and classrooms. In short, we talk about justice.
I’d like to share a little bit of what I’ve learned with you tonight. These are themes that have emerged, sometimes very forcefully, in the course of this research. I’d like to present them, and then use respondents’ own words to flesh them out a bit more.
Now no surprise to most of us here, but my research takes place amidst persistently high poverty rates in rural America, diminishing funding for civil legal aid, and well-documented rural attorney shortages. Within this context, there is a lot of attention paid to rural access to justice.
But as I’m learning, and this is my first point, “access to justice” may be the wrong language.
As one area judge noted, “I’ve got issues with ‘access to justice.’ It isn’t an issue getting people to the courts. Come to court tomorrow, and you’ll see all the pro se litigants representing themselves. The issue is getting people lawyers. You can simplify the formulaic process with self-help forms, but you don’t simplify the law.”
This gets me to my next point, which is that some of the initiatives touted as increasing access to justice are themselves barriers. Those self-help forms the judge mentioned are really intimidating. They’re stressful. They don’t capture the full extent of someone’s experience.
It’s the same with federal poverty guidelines and other eligibility standards. “Around here,” said one area social worker, “it’s really hard to grasp that people who were middle class before are now working poor. Obviously, if they’re here for our programs, they’re poor. They just may not meet that federal poverty guideline, which is horribly low.”
Similarly, a civil legal aid attorney commented, “That’s the stress of this job. I literally can’t help you. I’m prohibited from helping you because of our guidelines.”
And of course, all of this presumes that someone has actually requested assistance. When I asked a group of Head Start parents about the stigma they might feel in seeking assistance, everyone nodded so vehemently, and then it was silent. Finally, a man said, “It’s embarrassing to ask for help or to call legal aid. That’s a huge barrier.”
This leads me to my next point, which is that legal assistance and any other anti-poverty mechanism must take into consideration local realities of inequality, shame, and distrust.
One tribal judge noted, “I’ve seen it in the eyes of family members. They don’t trust our legal systems. That’s a shocker, right? We’ve conditioned them that nothing will happen. As a result, they fall back on ‘family values.’ What happens in the home stays in the home.”
This sense of resignation is something that comes up a lot in this research. One attorney noted, “It’s really easy for our clients to ignore civil legal needs. It’s just a way of life for them. You know, ‘Of course my food stamps are being cut off.’ It’s a way of life.”
An area educator noted, “[On the Iron Range], there’s this idea of ‘it’s always been this rough.’ People get used to it, just the way people get used to trauma and traumatic events. They think, ‘No matter what happens to me, it’s my job to endure it.’”
These attitudes and beliefs matter; they are unique to the region and shaped by its space and history. They impact, and sometimes inhibit, individuals’ willingness to seek out justice. Of course, and as my research keeps showing me, if anyone understands this place and its people, and what a locally, personally, and immediately-relevant version of justice looks like, it is legal advocates and decision-makers.
One tribal judge noted, “The outside world fails to ask, what works within your community? This works,” she said, and pointed to the seven values guiding her peacemaking court. “This is our culture. This is what we respond to.”
And the thing is, and this is my final theme: this place demands, and also permits, different understandings of justice. I see it all the time. I see legal aid and private attorneys who work really hard—and often below the radar—as trusted liaisons, connecting their clients to broader networks of healthcare, housing, employment, and other social services. This a sort of a backwards or positive spin on the resignation I described before: Countless times have I heard from attorneys, “That’s just what we do here. We help each other out.”
I’ve sat in on courtrooms where judicial process seems to have flown out the window, but where people are heard, and seem satisfied. Describing one of his colleagues, a local judge commented, “What he does is community judging. This is his family. He knows people just want to be heard. The system would lose credibility if he didn’t listen to everyone.”
If you can’t tell, I’m heartbroken by some of the things I’ve witnessed throughout this research. I also feel humbled, and sometimes I feel hopeful.
This brings me to Judge Ackerson’s invitation to speak here tonight, and to his request that we share our thoughts about what justice means to us in our life’s story.
This is where I have to be a bit more personal, which is more difficult. As an anthropologist, it’s easier to defer to what other people say. It’s easier to sometimes feel cynical about the idea of justice. Or to get lost in these academic-y conversations, where I let myself forget that justice is actually a feeling, and an experience. It is not something that is necessarily decreed or handed down as a formal decision. It might actually, and this feels very heretical coming from a dry, boring researcher—it might actually be about love.
And this is where Judge Ackerson comes in.
The first time I met Judge Ackerson for a research interview, he was wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and boots, and a Harley Davidson cap. I was completely disarmed. And over the course of the next couple of hours, and in subsequent conversations, and in sitting in on the Hibbing Mental Health Court, my idea of justice was likewise upended.
Judge Ackerson described the Mental Health Court in a sort of cavalier, and totally wonderful, way:“Let’s just do this by the seat of our pants and bring these people in and listen to them and care about them.” Of course, it’s not some fly-by-night operation, it’s a highly organized, focused, and thorough way of working with individuals in the legal system. It’s also something that is deeply felt.
When he talked with me about the Mental Health Court, Judge Ackerson talked about seeing the person before the group as a human being. He talked about that person’s needs, recognizing that they extended far beyond court and satisfying a probation officer to include a need for secure housing, for a job, a driver’s license, and, most of all, for the reassurance that they would be supported by a group of individuals who deeply understood what they were going through.
Describing the process, he said, “…It finally gets across [to them] that all of us here, we just want to see you do well.”
Later in one of our conversations, Judge Ackerson said, “There is that famous saying, justice delayed is justice denied. But sometimes justice takes a little while… It has to be based on [our] common humanity. It’s not based on training or biases… To me, justice is something that you can maybe see in somebody’s eyes…”
And I saw it, both in talking to him, and in sitting in on his courtroom and the Mental Health Court. And I’m grateful.
Richard Rohr, a theologian and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes: “Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. [Love] transforms people at the moments when they most hate themselves, when they most want to punish themselves or feel shame and guilt.”
Thank you, Judge Ackerson, and to all of you here, who do not neglect this reality of love in your pursuit of justice.
These were the words shared by Michele Statz, PhD, at Judge Ackerson’s retirement celebration on Sept. 20, 2018.