Thank you, Jo-Ann [Wallace]. I appreciate your kind words, and I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to stand with you today, and to salute the outstanding leadership – and vision – that you’ve brought to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
You and your team – as well as NLADA’s board members and network of partners and supporters – have had an extraordinary, and transformative, impact on our country. And you have strengthened the century-long tradition of excellence that has come to define this organization. As we celebrate this tradition, it is a privilege to join with you – and with so many dedicated legal advocates and public servants, including this year’s distinguished awardees: Justice [Stephen] Breyer and Congressman [John] Lewis.
Throughout their careers, each of these leaders has served as a powerful voice for the most vulnerable among us – and as a critical force in promoting fairness, calling for equal opportunity, and keeping our nation’s promise of equal justice under law. Today, they stand as examples for our entire legal community – reminding us of the sacred responsibilities that every attorney shares: to serve the cause of justice; and to ensure the strength, integrity, and accessibility of our legal system.
One hundred years ago, a commitment to these same responsibilities inspired a small group of legal aid providers to come together for the first time. These 15 individuals – with diverse backgrounds in criminal and civil law – met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to address what they saw as a burgeoning justice gap in this country.
It was the dawn of new century. And, despite the promise that was unfolding across this country, this group of lawyers recognized – and refused to turn away from – a serious and growing problem. They saw that many of the poor and exploited immigrants who had been drawn to the United States from around the world were finding it difficult – and, in some cases, impossible – to obtain basic legal protections. Along with a substantial – and expanding – population of disadvantaged Americans, these immigrant communities were often hard-pressed to access desperately needed legal guidance, fair representation, and important court resources.
Around the same moment in our history, one of my predecessors – our nation’s 46th Attorney General, Charles Bonaparte – expressed his own concerns about the state, and trajectory, of our justice system. Before members of the Supreme Court, he warned that – unless due process was protected – the administration of justice in America could become “a mockery.” He saw that our nation faced nothing less than a crisis – one that government would never be able to address alone.
In this climate of urgent and increasing need, the work of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association began. United, not only by frustration and concern, but also by a shared optimism – your founders reached out to government, rallied America’s legal community, and rose to meet the challenges of the day.
Expanding access to our legal system became their mission. Despite all that’s been achieved, this mission remains before us. And, in fulfilling it, for the last 100 years, NLADA has led the way forward.
From your pioneering work in developing standards for legal representation, to your efforts to shape – and to help pass – groundbreaking legislation, this association has served as a strong voice for the civil legal aid and public defense communities. You’ve inspired and mobilized countless attorneys – from every background and specialty – to invest their time and talents by helping the most vulnerable among us.
In partnership with legal advocates, public defenders, and private sector attorneys – as well as many of my colleagues across the Department of Justice – you’ve worked to expand access to basic legal services; to provide aid to more of those who need it; and to strengthen our nation’s commitment to promoting justice for everyone in the United States, regardless of race, color, ethnicity, education, or social status. Your efforts have helped secure much-needed benefits for disabled children, military families, and veterans; paved the way for individuals transitioning out of our prisons and jails to become productive members of their communities; and protected displaced immigrants and victims of domestic violence and civil rights violations.
To put it simply: you’ve created a century worth celebrating. But this is no time for this association – or any of us – to become complacent.
In spite of our best efforts, millions of Americans continue to struggle to access the legal services they need and deserve. Every person in this room understands what we’re up against. You’ve all seen the alarming statistics. You’ve read about defendants who have languished in jail for weeks, or even months, before counsel was appointed. You’ve seen how children and adults often enter our criminal justice system with nowhere to turn for guidance.
In too many jurisdictions, young people have been encouraged to waive their right to counsel; low-income adults have been denied the help they need from underfunded and understaffed public defender offices; and, each day, thousands of individuals appear in our courts with little understanding of their rights, the charges against them, or the potential sentences they face.
We continue to face persistent deficiencies in both the quantity and quality of legal representatives for those who cannot afford private counsel. And, today, despite all the progress we’ve made, there can be no question that our justice system continues to fall short of its highest ideals.
However, as we look forward to the century before us, I believe that there is good cause for optimism. And we can be encouraged by the momentum that NLADA has helped to create.
Today, on behalf of my colleagues across our nation’s Department of Justice, I am proud to renew the Department’s commitment, and my own commitment, to standing with you – and to continuing to support your vital efforts.
Nowhere is this commitment clearer than in the work of the Justice Department’s landmark Access to Justice Initiative – a new, permanent component we launched last year to help make legal services available and affordable for everyone in this country. The Access to Justice team collaborates closely with state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as a variety of nonprofit and private sector partners like NLADA – to highlight models for success, and to develop new strategies for delivering essential services.
In addition, Department leaders continue to work hand-in-hand with the Legal Services Corporation – and many of NLADA’s other key partners – in order to protect funding for programs that expand access to the justice system. In spite of the clear need for these services, unfortunately, we recently had to endure the largest cut in LSC funding in the last 15 years. But let me assure you: the Justice Department will keep working to preserve and increase LSC funding. And we will continue to seek out the most effective and efficient ways to provide critical assistance to the millions of Americans living near or below the poverty line who need our help.
This work is, and will remain, a top priority – not just for me, or my colleagues at the Justice Department – but for every lawyer and leader who has the privilege of serving this Administration – including the one who works in the Oval Office.
In fact, just last month, I was proud to join a number of my colleagues in a ceremony at the White House to honor President Obama’s 16 “Champions of Change” – a distinguished group that included your very own Jo-Ann Wallace.
She and her fellow honorees were singled out for their innovative work in expanding access to our justice system, improving the lives of others, and – perhaps most important – inspiring countless law students to follow in their footsteps.
I believe it’s worth remembering, as we celebrate this milestone anniversary, that the future – of this organization, and its work – depends not just on the efforts of the people in this room – but on our ability to rally new generations to our cause; to encourage others to take ownership of the founding mission of this organization; and to help our nation honor the promise that lies at the heart of the 14th Amendment: that “no state shall deny to any person…the equal protection of the laws.”
In a sense, we must all become “Champions of Change.” So, as we take time this afternoon to reflect on the progress that NLADA has helped to make over the last century, let us look to the challenges ahead with determination. And let us move forward together with confidence – that we can overcome the obstacles that await us tomorrow; and that new generations of lawyers, leaders, and public servants will guide this organization through the next 100 years.
Once again, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to take part in today’s celebration – and for everything you continue to do to make the promise of our justice system a reality for all Americans. I am honored to count you as partners in this work, and I look forward to all that we will accomplish together.