Revisiting ‘circuit riding’ judges

There’s a rich history in this country of the courts coming to far-flung communities to resolve disputes.

There are remnants of the practice in the names of our “circuit” courts. Circuit riders dispatched to rural and remote areas of the country to resolve disputes.

The mostly abandoned practice dates back to at least 1789 when Congress created the U.S. circuit courts as the federal judiciary’s primary trial courts and divided the country into 13 districts. Circuit riders often traveled alongside Methodist Church missionaries across a vast and growing territory. Historical records note the trips were arduous and ultimately discontinued at the federal level with the building of permanent courthouses.

Circuit Judge Hal W. Adams riding a mule to avoid high water in Lafayette County, Fla., circa 1928. Photo State Library and Archives of Florida.

The practice continued at the state level, where many court systems retain the “circuit” part of their riding heritage. Judges still sometimes rotate within a designated district. Nowadays, I don’t hear many stories about judges traveling to hold court directly in communities. There are probably exceptions for specialty courts for veterans and those dealing with addiction.

Some higher-level appellate courts travel for public education. Wisconsin has a “Justice on Wheels” program with its highest court holding oral arguments in some 30 locations throughout the state. Indiana has a similar “Appeals on Wheels” program. 

A modern approach to the circuit rider is the creation of satellite courts or kiosks. These official court outposts provide convenience (aka access) for those who have physical, financial, or other constraints that would make it difficult to travel to the main courthouse.

In 2013, Arizona launched a North Canyon Kiosk, where the “Arizona Strip” is geographically locked in by the Grand Canyon, Colorado River and the Virgin River Gorge. When first established, the kiosk immediately gave those residents a way to make court appearances, get forms and file matters. 

St. Louis County did something similar recently, creating an E-Court outpost in North County. St. Louis Presiding Judge Michael Burton shared his experiences at the National Council of Bar Presidents’ midyear meeting and on Legal Talk Network.

At one point, Burton made a quip about the next step being a justice bus to serve far-flung, low-income communities. Thinking of the circuit rider history and the current access-to-justice crisis, the idea of a court-driven justice bus isn’t all that funny or far-fetched.

Burton said St. Louis isn’t ready for that step yet. Why not?

The concept of a justice bus isn’t new at all. Some creative legal clinics have added wheels over the last couple of decades: 

In 2007, OneJustice launched a Justice Bus to deliver legal services to rural and isolated California communities. The organization buses law students and volunteer lawyers to these remote legal deserts. According to an article published by MEI Journal, by the end of 2019, the Justice Bus had held 372 mobile pro bono clinics in 43 of the state’s 58 counties and serving 8,147 low-income Californians. 

Photo: Legal Aid of the Bluegrass Justice Bus

The program partners with established legal organizations and projects as it travels to locations. In 2019, for example, Stanford Law School students traveled to assist low-income residents in the Fresno area in clearing their criminal records through expungement. Fresno isn’t especially rural or isolated, so it’s good to see that OneJustice identified its program’s weakness. Because it partners with existing organizations, it may be missing opportunities to serve truly isolated communities. 

In 2017, Legal Aid of the Bluegrass equipped a Justice Bus as a mobile law office to provide legal services in rural Kentucky. While Legal Aid of Bluegrass has some 30 offices, the bus creates a way to reach clients who can’t travel or have mobility issues. The purchase of Kentucky’s bus came in part from a $50,000 opportunity grant by the American Bar Endowment.

Like the Kentucky project, Ohio’s Access to Justice Foundation launched a Justice Bus to reach rural Ohioans. According to MEI, more than 2 million live in rural or underserved areas. 

However, it’s no surprise that these traveling clinics have had a more limited impact because of the pandemic. As in-person life resumes, I expect these existing buses will be back in business. 

Will court-led initiatives be far behind?

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