Judge Bowler calls for renewed spirit in providing justice for all


- Legal News photo by Cynthia Price


At last Friday’s annual Law Day Luncheon, the Hon. Patrick Bowler, retired  61st District Court judge, gave the assembled Grand Rapids Bar Association members the benefit of his observations while traveling nationally to promote and train others on specialty courts.

His bottom line: those in the legal profession must rediscover a “spiritual dimension” for renewed strength in addressing the disparities between access to justice experienced by different parts of society.

In what amounts to a second career, Bowler travels all over the country as faculty for specialty court training academies.

Through his work with the 61st District Drug Court, which he started in 1998, Bowler has had plenty of opportunity to observe the negative impact of failure toprovide adequately for society’s neediest.

The kind of intensive response provided by such specialty courts, which also include Sobriety or DWI Courts, Mental Health Courts, and Veterans Courts, are a bright spot in the struggle to increase fair treatment for all.

Reached at the end of a Drug Treatment Court program development conference in San Antonio on Thursday, Bowler commented, “It’s just amazing the differences in the way different states and different regions within states strive for achieving justice. Everybody’s looking for that right balance.” He says about his current mission, “Very rewarding. And challenging, it can be very challenging.”

In his keynote address, Judge Bowler  said he has formed two impressions through these travels.

The first is: “Don’t underestimate West Michigan. We have here a rich tradition of effective judges, and a rich tradition of ethical lawyers.”

The second is less heartening. Bowler has observed that lawyers everywhere decry what they see the profession has become, the lack in professionalism and commitment. “Our cherished profession, the profession of the law, is in a state of funk. There is a general malaise; if the profession were subject to a psychological evaluation, we would be very close to a diagnosis of clinical depression.

“It’s not just about the recession, it’s the nature of the practice itself that seems stressed. There is a growing dissatisfaction among lawyers in the past ten years, and individually lawyers have significantly higher levels of depression and substance abuse than others... Many lawyers feel their jobs are unfulfilling.”

Bowler traces this to a growing recognition that citizens most in need are increasingly unable to access the justice system, which attorneys find out of sync with the values that motivated them to enter the profession.

Judge Bowler referred to the 2011 Law Day theme, “ The Legacy of John Adams,” citing Adams’s defense of British soldiers of whom “he had been an outspoken critic” as the highest calling of a true professional — a willingness to set aside one’s own comfort, and earning power, to serve the rule of law.

He quoted Harvard Law School Dean Nathan Pounder on professionals: “a group pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service - no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood. Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of a public service is the primary purpose.”

Noting that, “Without a doubt the separation between the haves and the have-nots is ever-expanding,” Judge Bowler pointed to statistics that indicate the United States is falling behind in providing access to justice for all of its citizens. The nation placed 20th of 35 across the globe in a ranking by the World Justice Project.

And Michigan is ranked at 44th out of the 50 states in spending on criminal defense of the indigent. He noted a similar deficit in civil law access.

“Without the rule of law, matters of fundamental fairness become diminished or are lost,” Bowler said. “We as lawyers began our pursuit of this career with strong personal values, we wanted to do right, we wanted to correct the wrongs of our society. But somewhere along the line there’s been a major disconnect.”

Circling back to lessons learned from his Drug Court experience, Bowler concluded by saying, “Experts say the most significant factor for continued sobriety is the element of spirituality...which arises from your connection with yourself, the development of your personal value system. It is my opinion that it is exactly that element we need to renew our spirit, renew our connections to our selves and our connections to others.

“Is there hope? Certainly. Let’s return to the high ideals of John Adams.”