Retiring ALSP Director Reflects on Former Commission Chair Goldner’s Tenure

Henry Ward Beecher was a leading Congregational minister and author who, like his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a fervent abolitionist. He possessed a beautiful globe depicting the various constellations and stars of the heavens. Robert Ingersoll visited Beecher one day and asked “who made it?” Beecher, seeking the opportunity to attack his friends agnosticism responded, “Why, nobody made it; it just happened.”

In some ways it looks to an outsider that the Access to Justice Commission “just happened.” But those of us who know better understand that it was the guiding hand, gentle persuasion, and creative leadership of Chuck Goldner that made it happen. Dean Goldner was elected chair of the Commission at its first meeting in October 2004, and led the Commission until August 2010. This period has been a remarkable time of organization and performance. Initially there was no structure, funding or plan for the new Commission beyond the mission “to provide equal access to justice in civil cases to all Arkansans.” He led the other commissioners in developing priorities of what needed to be accomplished in a first tier of activities and what items could wait for attention. Early on the concept of access to justice as a three legged stool developed which led to the creation of three committees designed to strengthen each of those legs: pro bono, pro se, and legal aid. Dean Goldner insured that information was brought forth which gave the Commission an understanding of the status of factors impacting legal aid at the moment including demographics, funding, staffing, client services, and the efforts of other access to justice groups throughout the country.

By early 2005 the Commission was developing a plan to implement town hall meetings throughout the state as a way of both gathering information and educating the community at large about access to justice. Dean Goldner chaired these sessions which were hosted by the Member of Congress in each of the four Congressional Districts. The meetings heard testimony from clients, lawyers, judges, service agencies, and legal aid advocates all of which became part of the strategic plan for the Commission during its initial three years.

Working in parallel the Commission sought private funding and produced a DVD which told the story of legal aid and the importance of securing justice for low income Arkansans. “Forging the Road to Civil Justice” became an educational tool of the commissioners in public meetings which elevated knowledge about the needs and impacts of civil legal aid in the state.

Another important part of the initial information gathering was a survey of circuit judges and circuit clerks to determine how pro se litigants affected the courts. From that survey, and a follow up three years later, the Commission learned of ways it might help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts when it came to pro se litigation. On line forms were developed, informational brochures were produced, and judges and clerks were informed of what was acceptable when working with pro se litigants. Court processes dramatically improved with the advent of these materials.

It was Dean Goldner’s shaping and timing of all this incoming information that began to bear fruit in the work of the Commission. He shepherded a Model 6.1 Rule change through the Bar Association and to the Supreme Court for an important change in how attorney’s in the state consider and report pro bono service. He led the effort in applying the information gathered in town hall meetings, circuit judge surveys and the three committees of the Commission toward legislative proposals which over the course of his tenure as Chair would annually bring $855,000 in revenue to the two legal aid operations in the state. In his concern for both education and legislation he fostered the development of a website for the Commission and its work and another specifically aimed at legislators which provided them information on their constituents and the impact of civil legal aid in their districts.

Another aspect of an effective leader is to periodically take stock of the organization and where it is heading. Accordingly, in 2007 Dean Goldner arranged for a national leader in the access to justice movement to lead a strategic review of the Commission and its work with a view toward the future. That day long meeting led to the establishment of ten priorities and the expansion of committee activities with the addition of committees for education and legislation. These changes subsequently led to two important achievements which were executed in 2009.

One was the first statewide private bar and corporate campaign for funding legal aid, The Promise of Justice Campaign. It netted over $300,000 to fund the work of legal aid in the state and more importantly got the case for increasing access to justice to a broader audience than ever before.

The second activity was the state’s first Promise of Justice Conference which focused members of the bar and judges on the clients, opportunities and barriers to the expansion of access to justice for low income Arkansans. The Conference heard from national luminaries in the American Bar Association, and the judiciary.

The capstone achievement of Dean Goldner’s leadership of the Commission came in 2010 with the establishment of the Access to Justice Foundation designed to receive and distribute funds from the Commission to the two legal aid organizations. It is indeed a genuine foundation for the future growth and development of access to justice in Arkansas.

So when future justice community leaders and ordinary citizens look at access to justice in Arkansas; they will know that it did not “just happen.” Rather, it was shaped and led by the vision and tenacity of a devoted civic leader – Chuck Goldner.

–By Ron Lanoue