2018 Equal Justice University brings together lawyers, advocates, judges from across Tennessee

September 20, 2018

The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services recently held its 41st annual conference devoted to expanding civil legal assistance throughout the state. The 2018 edition of Equal Justice University brought an enthusiastic crowd of legal professionals together to hear updates on efforts to increase access to justice in Tennessee and to educate themselves on a variety of topics relevant to improving legal assistance to Tennesseans in need.

Chief Justice Jeff Bivins addressed the gathering at the opening day welcome luncheon. He stressed the central importance of access to justice to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“Equal access to justice is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, it is in fact the right thing to do,” he said.

Chief Justice Bivins noted that 2019 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Court’s creation of the Access to Justice Commission, which is dedicated to figuring out ways to meet the civil legal needs of underrepresented Tennesseans. That anniversary will come during a period when great progress is being made in Tennessee around access to justice.

Chief Justice Bivins highlighted some impressive statistics that demonstrated the impact that Tennessee’s legal community has had on improving justice in the state. For instance, in 2017:

- TN Free Legal Answers, a project of TALS and the Tennessee Bar Association, answered 1,685 legal questions for those in need. “TN free legal answers has become a model for the rest of the nation for this type of service,” Chief Justice Bivins said.

- the TALS Help4TN hotline served over 3,900 clients.

- Tennessee attorneys reported nearly 600,000 hours of pro bono service.

Additionally, in 2018 the Access to Justice Commission’s Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance hosted a Faith and Justice Summit, which highlighted the innovative ways religious leaders and attorneys are working together to reach Tennesseans with civil legal needs. Also, in 2018, the 10th Judicial District was the site of the state’s first-ever multi-county expungement clinic. Expungement clinics, Chief Justice Bivins stressed, are a critical part of the push for greater access to justice.

“The efforts of Access to Justice are multifaceted, critical, and very well done in our state, and I’m very proud of those efforts,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “What that doesn’t mean though is that we can rest on our laurels. It doesn’t mean we are reaching every citizen out there who needs our efforts. In fact, approximately 6 out of 10 of low income households in Tennessee reported experiencing one or more civil legal problems in the past year. Over 1 million Tennesseans live below the federal poverty line. That’s nearly 1 in 6 people, which ranks the state 40th in the nation. Over 60 percent of low income Tennesseans who reported having a civil legal problem did not take action to solve that problem. Their common reasons included lack of financial resources, lack of trust in the judicial system, feeling it’s better to leave things alone, and feelings of intimidation by the legal system.”

Chief Justice Bivins ended by announcing some news that shows the Court’s redoubled dedication to winning this battle against injustice. Chief Justice Bivins said that the Administrative Office of the Courts will soon be creating a third, full-time position that is dedicated to Access to Justice work.

“It is something that is clearly necessary, clearly needed, and I think will be a great benefit to all of you in this room,” he said, before adding, “but, more importantly, it will be a benefit to the citizens of Tennessee.”

Video Contest Winners Recognized

EJU also highlighted the accomplishments of students who won a special contest earlier this year. Law students had been asked to submit videos exploring “Why Pro Bono Matters” as part of the inaugural Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission Law Student Video Contest. The winners—Curtis Campbell, M. Elizabeth Patton, and Alexandra Bloodworth Rogers, all from Belmont University College of Law — were first announced at the 2018 #Help4TNDay celebration in April. The Belmont Legal Aid Society took home the $1,000 cash prize, which was put toward stipends for students to do public interest work over the summer of 2018.

At EJU, the work of these students was celebrated in front of the Tennessee Supreme Court, leaders of the Tennessee Bar Association, and hundreds of legal aid attorneys, advocates, and pro bono volunteers.  Justice Connie Clark presented the students in attendance with small tokens of appreciation.

Opioid Panel Presentation

EJU also featured a number of panels devoted to subjects relevant to access to justice issues. One panel focused on the state of the opioid epidemic in Tennessee. Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate, who also co-chairs the National Judicial Opioid Task Force, opened the discussion by talking about various initiatives that judicial leaders across the country are leading to try to ameliorate the problem. Those initiatives involve such steps as making sure that all courts have access to the drug NARCAN, which can counter the effects of an opioid overdose, and that the safe handling of fentanyl is widely taught.

She said it was important that judges receive the proper training in drug addiction issues so that they can act to address the problems they see in their districts.

Next up, Thomas Farmer, a special agent in charge with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the director of the Tennessee Dangerous Drugs Task Force, said that Tennessee was making good progress in terms of reducing the number of opioids that are provided or prescribed in the state.

“We’re reducing those numbers, and we’re reducing them at a good rate,” Farmer said. “We’ve got the ship headed in the right direction.”

He noted, though, that challenges still abound in Tennessee, which has consistently ranked in the top five states in terms of opioid prescription rates.  Although Tennessee has recently seen a nearly 15 percent reduction in prescribed opioids, that still leaves a lot to be done.

“I want to remind you that our ceiling started very, very high,” he said.

Another challenge comes in the form of unintended consequences. Reducing the number of opioid prescriptions can lead addicts to turn to street drugs to get their fix. As Farmer pointed out, overdose deaths continue to rise in the state, reaching a high of 1,776 in 2017.

He said any solution would have to be focused on not just diverting drugs, but in ending cycles of addiction.

“We’ve already lost an entire generation to addiction,” he said. “We are well into working on the next generation of addiction, so we’ve got to be looking down the road to stop the cycles of addiction and abuse in families.”

Dr. Steven Loyd knows how addiction works all too well. Dr. Loyd, who formerly served as the State of Tennessee’s medical director of substance abuse services and is now with the addiction treatment provider JourneyPure, is a recovering addict himself.

Dr. Loyd impressed on people just how all-consuming an opioid addiction can be. He said that an addict’s craving for opioids is just like a craving for water if thirsty or food if hungry but 10 times stronger.

Part of what makes opioids so insidious to addicts is that they affect the brain’s limbic system. Dr. Loyd described that part of the brain as the one responsible for a person’s will to live.

“So what would you do in order to live?” Dr. Loyd asked. “That’s how come people prostitute themselves on the street. That’s why they give up their babies. That’s why they leave their families, because the area of the brain that is responsible for their will to live is the part of the brain that is hijacked.”

Fourth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Duane Slone also spoke at the panel. Judge Slone is the innovator behind the successful TN ROCS docket, which gives non-violent drug offenders an alternative to incarceration as long as they adhere to certain requirements like individually tailored health treatment plans and drug screenings. He is also the chair of the Tennessee Judicial Opioid Initiative.

The TN ROCS docket came about as a result of what Judge Slone was seeing in his courtroom. He saw people who had been prescribed drugs like Buprenorphine to help with their opioid addictions, but who were not otherwise receiving any substance abuse or mental health treatment.

He decided to implement a strategy derived from drug recovery courts to try to help people in that position.

“Adequate assessment of treatment, frequent accountability, and a big stick” are the three components of TN ROCS. A criminal justice liaison meets with an offender and draws up a behavioral health plan for the person. Next, that person regularly meets with a corrections officer, who checks that the person is adhering to the plan. The final piece of the puzzle is Judge Slone himself. While Judge Slone is careful to treat everyone on the docket with care and compassion, there are consequences for non-compliance, and it is important that the offenders understand them.

The result of this strategy has been transformative, with low rates of recidivism and high rates of healthy births among TN ROCS participants.

“There’s been an entire philosophical shift in the 4th Judicial District,” Judge Slone said.

Judge Slone is hopeful that more and more judges will get involved with the fight against opioids and other addictive drugs.

“We’ve got to have all hands on deck, and that’s the message I’m preaching to all of my colleagues across the state,” he said. “And I’m happy  to report to you that at our Tennessee Judicial Conference they were absolutely embracing the idea that we’ve all got to get on board.”

Chief Justice Jeff Bivins