The Legal Year in Review

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Tabloid dramas such as the trials of Casey Anthony and Conrad Murray filled the headlines this year, but the more important stories -- like the judicial budget crisis -- fell on deaf ears

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Composite image: Reuters

This year in the law started off in anger and in sorrow. On January 8, a young gunman in Tucson walked up to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a shopping center and opened fire, gravely wounding the congresswoman and many others. Six innocent people were killed by Jared Loughner, including Arizona's Chief U.S. District Judge John M. Roll. The esteemed jurist, a grandfather, had come to visit Rep. Giffords that Saturday morning to talk with her about a "judicial emergency" in Arizona left by Senate intransigence over federal judicial nominees. Judge Roll literally died in the line of duty, and they've already named a courthouse after him.

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The worsening crisis of our nation's court systems did not receive nearly as much media coverage in 2011 as did the fight over the Affordable Care Act. The third-world justice that millions of Americans are being forced to endure didn't get as much play on cable or online as did the burgeoning national battle over immigration policy or the relentless erosion of judicial support for same-sex marriage bans. Few covered the empty benches and delayed dockets the way they covered the Conrad Murray trial, or the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, or the saga of Casey Anthony. A silent courtroom, after all, makes for terrible television.

That's just the way the world is. The big stories come and go. They grab our attention and curiosity. But the bigger stories, the ones with tectonic shifts over time, are harder to perceive and thus harder to translate. So before I briefly review the year in the law, I'd like to go onto the record as saying this: Elected officials, and the electorate, are ignoring the crisis of our courts at their own peril. Fully functioning judicial systems are the bulwark of the rule of law. Our federal and state judicial systems are what separate America from the lawlessness of Russia and the tyranny of the Middle East. We are making a terrible mistake by underfunding them.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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