Since the levees burst in New Orleans and the interstate bridge collapsed in Minnesota, much has been written and said about the need to repair the nation’s infrastructure, too much of which is frayed and crumbling because of years of underinvestment. This transpired while tax cut after tax cut went to the wealthiest in our society, and billions were squandered on wars of choice and high-tech weaponry. This neglect of infrastructure resulted in bodies littering the banks of the Mississippi on the Gulf Coast and floating in the wreckage of a highway a thousand miles upriver.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a k a the stimulus bill), passed earlier this year, has begun the process of rebuilding our infrastructure, as well as retooling for a greener country. This investment is a long-overdue correction of our misguided national priorities. But there is another infrastructure that has been at best neglected and at worst assaulted in recent years, and that is our infrastructure of justice.
To some extent the infrastructure of justice is physical, including courthouses, prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices–and prisons. We certainly have not neglected building prisons in recent years, as draconian sentencing laws have put a record number of men and many women behind bars. This has been the greatest boom-time in recorded history for the prison-industrial complex. But far more than bricks and mortar, the infrastructure of laws and policies and human capital tell the story of the health of justice in America.
Given the nature of the justice system, repairing the broken infrastructure is not simply, or even primarily, a matter of federal action. What is required is an understanding of the pieces and what needs to happen at various levels, with the right leadership, to put them back together.
Let’s start with influencing who sits on the federal bench. More than pushing for individual nominees, we need to change the sorry frame of the debate about judges and the roles they play in our democracy. President Obama has begun that process with the successful nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice. Sotomayor cast her first vote on the Court in a death penalty case, supporting the claims of the defendant. By any measure, she is among the most qualified new justices of the past century. In stressing her real-world experience, the president tried to move beyond the tiresome wedge issues over which Supreme Court nominations have recently been waged. But conservative judicial activists insisted on waging old battles; in the end, only nine Republican senators voted for her confirmation.