Thursday, November 11, 2010

Justice for Veterans

Today is a state holiday, and I have time to write about why. Ron Castille was a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, and today is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. He made the New York Times this morning, in a terrific op-ed that I commend to you, A Special Court for Veterans, on the movement toward veterans courts and statewide efforts to better provide justice for veterans and those who currently serve.

Texas is in the forefront as well, and on several fronts at once. Bar President Terry Tottenham, a former Marine captain, has launched the wildly successful Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans initiative. It is a state-wide effort to recruit lawyers who will provide pro bono legal services to veterans who cannot afford those services. The initiative has received an overwhelming response from Texas lawyers, with Veterans Clinics operational in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, Austin, and every other veterans-centric area of Texas. To further assist access to justice for veterans, by order the Supreme Court of Texas has recently amended the Rules Governing Admission to the Bar of Texas to allow Judge Advocates who are not members of the Texas bar to represent soldiers and their dependents in specific instances.

On the legislative side, SB 1940 from last session established veterans court programs in Texas. There was a great article about this in the Texas Tribune back in May, and the implementation of the bill is the subject of a joint interim study by the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and House Committee on Defense and Veterans' Affairs, which are also charged to examine the link between combat stress disorders of war veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and the onset of criminal behavior. They had a very compelling hearing on July 13 with testimony from judges (and veterans) Brent Carr and Michael Snipes. Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Tarrant and Travis counties all have veterans courts, and Smith County is close. So courts have been implemented in the major jurisdictions in Texas, but from the testimony in the hearing it seems safe to say that obstacles, such as adequate resources and local collaboration, remain.

We can do more. For starters, why aren't holidays like Veterans Day an occasion for public service rather than a mandatory state holiday? And on the court administration side, we must do more. We can better collaborate at the state level to ensure that all the agencies and stakeholders seeking to expand these services are working together. And on the court technology front - never far from my mind - it seems to me that ensuring access to courts for veterans and service people overseas is one of the most compelling reasons that we need to achieve the capability for universal eFiling in any Texas court, for any case type.

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