Thank you, Debby for those kind words – and for the outstanding leadership, and critical partnership, that you provide as President of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. It’s a privilege to stand with you this evening – and to join you, and so many of Legal Aid’s leaders, board members, and strong supporters – in recognizing this year’s Servant of Justice Award recipients, and celebrating the outstanding work that – over the past eight decades – has become this organization’s hallmark.
I would particularly like to recognize my good friends – and former colleagues – Eric Angel, Legal Aid’s Executive Director, and Peter Edelman, Chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission; along with D.C. Attorney General Nathan; Councilman Mendelson; Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation; distinguished members of the bench, including Chief Judge Washington, of the D.C. Court of Appeals; leaders of the D.C. Bar Association – including the incoming D.C. Bar President, and my old friend, Tom Williamson; and of course so many dedicated attorneys – including a few of my former colleagues from Covington and Burling. It’s great to see you all. And it’s pleasure to be in such good company this evening.
As Debby just mentioned, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and alongside many of the advocates in this room – and even had the honor of receiving the Servant of Justice award when I was Deputy Attorney General in the 1990s. Over the years, a number of my Justice Department colleagues – including former Attorney General Janet Reno and current Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Tom Perez – have also received this prestigious accolade. And tonight, it is a special privilege to return to the Legal Aid Society to congratulate the 2012 Servant of Justice honorees – Susan Hoffman and Jim Springer – along with the winner of this year’s Klepper Prize for Volunteer Excellence, Jonathan Lin.
Each one of you is playing a key role in closing the “justice gap,” and advancing the work that continues to make such a profound difference in the lives of so many disadvantaged people across – and far beyond – our nation’s capital. Together with the diverse group of judges, attorneys, staff members, and supporters gathered here, you stand on the front lines of this struggle in neighborhoods and communities across the District. And – for the past 80 years – you and your predecessors have been fighting not only to restore the essential rights of those who cannot afford representation on their own, but also to ensure the strength and integrity of our nation’s justice system.
As stewards of the law – and servants of all those it protects and empowers – I believe this work is, in many ways, our highest calling. But it’s more than just a professional obligation. As you’ve shown, we must regard it as nothing less than a moral imperative.
Especially in light of recent economic challenges – as funding for aid programs has become painfully limited, and budgets across government and the nonprofit sector have come under increasing strain – the urgency of the crisis facing our justice system has been brought into sharp focus. Studies have consistently shown that as much as 80% of civil legal needs go unmet.
For me – and, I’m sure, for many of you – this cause is deeply personal. Years ago, as a judge on the D.C. Superior Court – where many poor residents turn to resolve their legal problems – and as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, the shortage of adequate representation was a reality I came face-to-face with on a daily basis. And while important progress has been made since then, as recently as 2008, a study by the D.C. Access to Justice Commission showed that 77 percent of plaintiffs in family law matters that came before the Superior Court were pro se, along with 97 percent of defendants who appeared in Landlord/Tenant Court – and fully 98 percent of litigants in the Court’s Domestic Violence Unit.
These numbers are not only shocking – they are unacceptable. They are inexcusable. And they are unworthy of the legal system that we’ve been entrusted to uphold.
Fortunately, Legal Aid has responded not with despair, but with resolve. Despite the scope of the challenges we face – and the obstacles that so many low-income individuals must overcome – you’ve been working tirelessly to reach as many D.C. residents as possible, and to help realize the promise of equal justice for disadvantaged and underserved populations throughout the District. You’ve proven your dedication to achieving meaningful change on a systemic scale. And – perhaps most importantly – you’re providing a model for success that others can replicate across the country.
Every day, Legal Aid attorneys are in the courtroom – standing up for survivors of domestic violence; helping families facing eviction, and veterans who have been denied their benefits; and making sure adults and children alike have an understanding of the rights and protections to which they are entitled. And, because of your consistent focus on pro bono work, you are helping to rally the entire bar to this cause. Last year alone, I understand Legal Aid received more than $8 million worth of pro bono assistance. Through programs like your “Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project” and the D.C. Access to Justice Commission’s “Raising the Bar” initiative, many of you are working to bring about sweeping, structural change. You’re improving lives. And you’re helping to restore the foundation of America’s justice system.
There’s no question that we can all be encouraged by the progress that you’ve made – and optimistic about the extraordinary work that this organization and its supporters are continuing to lead. But there’s also no denying that much more remains to be done.
That’s why I’m pleased to report that, across this Administration, my colleagues and I are proud to stand with you. And, over the last three years, our nation’s Department of Justice has taken unprecedented steps to ensure that our legal system is accessible, effective, and a model of integrity.
Nowhere is this commitment more clear than in the work of the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative – an important new component that, since it was launched just over two years ago, has been engaging with a wide variety of new partners – including state, local, tribal and federal officials, nonprofit organizations, and experts from across the private sector. I’m glad to see two of the key leaders of this work – Karen Lash and Melanca Clark – here this evening.
At the same time, thanks to our Federal Government Pro Bono Program – and the dedicated leadership of its Director, Laura Klein – we’re also working internally and with our agency colleagues to elevate, and to encourage, pro bono service. I know many of you have provided direct support – and, in some cases, mentoring – to volunteer attorneys from the Justice Department and across the federal government. I thank you for that.
And, as a result of this type of partnership – and the ongoing work of a range of other Administration initiatives and grant programs, from those administered by the Office of Justice Programs, to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and the Department’s work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Counseling Program – we’ve built a strong record of cooperation and collaboration with a variety of stakeholders. We’ve helped create and enhance state Access to Justice Commissions, increased access to foreclosure mediation services and encouraged state Attorneys General to support foreclosure mediation and legal services, and strengthened job training grant solicitations by making sure they include legal assistance.
And tonight – with your support and continued leadership – we stand poised to take this work to the next level.
So, as we recognize these distinguished honorees – and reflect on the progress that’s been made over the past eight decades – let us also seize the opportunity to look ahead to the next 80 years. Let us reaffirm our commitment to the work that is our solemn obligation – and that has become our common cause. And, above all, let us keep fighting to ensure that – here in our nation’s capital, and in communities across the country – the success of our efforts can be measured in challenges overcome; in lives improved; and – not in cases won or lost – but in justice done.
As we advance this work, I want to thank the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia for your leadership. I am proud to count each of you as colleagues and partners. And I look forward to where your efforts will – and must – take us in the months and years ahead.