As prepared for delivery
Thank you, Peter [Edelman] for your kind words, for your outstanding leadership as Chair of the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission – and of course for your friendship over the years. I’d also like to thank our hosts, Crowell and Moring, for providing such an excellent venue for tonight’s celebration.
It’s a pleasure to join you in marking the inaugural year of this groundbreaking Raising the Bar campaign. And it’s a special privilege to stand alongside Deputy Mayor [Paul] Quander, Councilman [Phil] Mendelson, distinguished members of the bench, representatives of the District of Columbia Attorney General’s office – along with my colleagues from the Department’s Access to Justice Office, and my good friends Darrell Motley, President of the D.C. Bar; Katia Garrett, Executive Director of the DC Bar Foundation; and Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation – as we come together to recognize the 23 firms that already have helped to make this initiative a resounding success.
As a result of the vision – and the tireless work – of so many Commission members, Foundation partners, and critical allies from across Washington’s legal community – including many of my former colleagues from Covington and Burling, who I’m happy to see this evening – you’ve helped make good on our shared commitment to ensuring access to justice for our city’s most vulnerable residents. You’ve made remarkable strides toward closing the “justice gap,” and protecting the basic rights of the most vulnerable members of our society. And – from Anacostia to Georgetown – you’re helping to fulfill our nation’s founding promise of equal justice under law.
Particularly in this time of unprecedented economic challenges – when government agencies have been asked to accomplish more with less, and funding for legal services is increasingly scarce – the obstacles we face have been brought into stark focus. And here in our nation’s capital, they could not be more clear. As a recent study by this Commission and the D.C. Consortium of Legal Service Providers revealed, thousands of local residents have been denied access to legal services, millions of dollars have disappeared from the budget for this area’s legal services network, and entire programs have been eliminated because of significant staff and resource shortfalls.
But in the face of this crisis, I am proud to note that attorneys and advocates throughout D.C. have responded not with despair – but with resolve. Your actions and generosity are already making a tremendous difference. And – although you are certainly leading the way – the good news is that you’re far from alone.
Over the last 15 years, more than half of all states – plus the District of Columbia – have created Access to Justice Commissions. Here in Washington, Commission leaders, supporters, and partners have taken a central role in reinvigorating this city’s pro bono culture – and providing representation to those who cannot afford to retain counsel. And, despite the absence of adequate funding, your efforts to reduce barriers to access have made a difference in thousands of lives.
Your work also has helped to strengthen the groundbreaking Access to Justice Initiative that the Justice Department launched two years ago this month. As many of you know firsthand, this initiative has helped to expand and enhance national efforts to build quality indigent defense systems. Over the last two years, we’ve engaged a variety of partners in this work – from state, local and tribal officials, to members of the nonprofit and private sector communities. And we continue to make much-needed progress in identifying, sharing, and implementing the most innovative and effective strategies for addressing the indigent defense crisis.
Thanks to the outstanding work being led by our Access to Justice team – along with other Department components, including the Office of Justice Programs; and initiatives like the Federal Government Pro Bono Program – there’s no question that we’ve made meaningful, measurable progress – identifying concrete reform strategies, improving our understanding of these issues, and directly supporting efforts to implement the ABA’s “Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System.” But we also recognize that government – on its own – will never be able to achieve the results that we need – and that the American people deserve.
That’s why I am honored to join you in celebrating the success that this city’s legal community has achieved – particularly through this first-of-its-kind fundraising campaign. Over the last year alone, the 23 law firms we’ve gathered to honor donated more than $3 million to local legal services providers – an increase of more than half a million dollars from the amount they gave in 2010. Each one gave at benchmark levels, with several firms substantially increasing their donations in order to meet threshold goals.
As a result, the people in this room haven’t just set a good example – you’ve set the standard. Your generosity is providing critical aid to minors, victims of domestic violence, and families facing eviction. It’s helping to safeguard the health, the well-being, and the constitutional rights of countless individuals. And –as many of you have made clear to me – this is only the beginning.
Newly-formed Commissions in Connecticut, Kansas, and Kentucky – among many others – will undoubtedly look to Raising the Bar as a model of success. In fact, today and tomorrow, a member of the Department’s Access to Justice staff is working with authorities in Indiana – including members of the state Supreme Court and a broad swath of the bench and bar – to develop goals for a possible Access to Justice Commission in that state. They certainly can draw inspiration from what you’ve accomplished right here in D.C. – especially through Raising the Bar.
Now, I believe we can all be proud of the tremendous work we’ve gathered to celebrate this evening – and we should all be encouraged by the promise that this campaign holds for the future. But I also recognize that we cannot yet be satisfied – and this is no time to become complacent.
The nearly two dozen firms represented here this evening are in a unique position to rally others to this cause and into action. I urge you not only to keep up your great work – but also to engage with additional partners across government and the nonprofit and private sectors.
This type of collaborative approach is essential – and, without question, will help to continue the momentum you’ve created. It also will help us to fulfill our collective responsibility, as members of the legal profession, not merely to win cases – but to do justice. And it will have a profound positive impact on countless individuals and families across – and far beyond – our nation’s capital.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of our efforts will be measured not in dollars and cents, but in challenges that are met and overcome; in lives that are touched and improved; and in the rights – of all Americans, including indigent populations – that are protected and restored.
So – as we celebrate tonight – let us also seize the opportunity to renew our commitment to this work, and to make it not only our shared priority, but our common cause. Let us lift up stand-out efforts like Raising the Bar, and encourage our peers to help replicate and refine this model. Above all, let us continue to do everything in our power to ensure that – in our nation’s capital, and in communities across the country – equal access to justice is not just an aspiration, but a reality, for all Americans.
In these efforts, I am proud to count each of you as colleagues and partners. I am grateful for your commitment to public service – and to the strength and integrity of our justice system. And I look forward to where your efforts will take us in the months and years ahead.
Congratulations on the extraordinary progress you’ve already made – and, once again, thank you all.