Thank you, Dean [Martha] Minow, for those kind words; for your leadership as Vice Chair of the Legal Services Corporation’s Board of Directors; and for all that you and your colleagues do every day to promote equal access to justice for those who cannot afford it. It’s a privilege to stand with my good friends Jim Sandman and John Levi – and to take part in today’s important Forum. And it’s a pleasure to help welcome so many national leaders, passionate advocates, and dedicated jurists to the White House.
Even as we gather in a spirit of partnership this afternoon, I know we are all bound by shock and sorrow at yesterday’s tragic events in Boston. On behalf of my Justice Department colleagues, I’d like to express my deepest sympathies to the families of those who lost their lives in this brutal attack. They – and all of the innocent people who were injured yesterday – will be in my thoughts and prayers.
As we strive to make sense of this heinous and cowardly terrorist act, I also want to thank the brave law enforcement officials, firefighters, National Guardsmen, and other first responders who – upon hearing the explosions – put the safety of others above their own and raced toward the dangers from which others were fleeing. Their heroic actions undoubtedly saved lives.
Finally, I want to assure you that the full resources of the Justice Department and all of its components will be mobilized to investigate and respond to this incident. My colleagues and I are working around the clock to identify the individual or group responsible for this unspeakable act, to hold them accountable, and to ensure that they are punished to the fullest extent of the law and by any means available to us. We will not rest until justice has been done.
In the meantime – as these efforts continue to unfold – it’s an honor to join all of you in discussing the challenges we face in expanding civil legal assistance; building on the progress that’s underway in communities across the country; and seeking new ways to improve America’s legal system and move this nation closer to its founding principles: of equality, opportunity, and justice under the law.
Half a century ago, these principles drove Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black to write – in the Court’s unanimous opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright – that “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.” In the years since this landmark case, Justice Black’s words have helped to shift the foundations of our criminal justice system. But they have also become a rallying cry – and a call to action – for advocates and legal aid providers in the civil arena.
This call was echoed just weeks after Gideon – when, in Birmingham, Alabama, a prominent civil rights leader was arrested for taking part in a non-violent protest to end segregation. As he sat in the Birmingham City Jail – exactly 50 years ago today – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on the same principles – and some of the same disparities – that guided Justice Black’s opinion. On scraps of newsprint, he drafted what some consider the most important document of the Civil Rights era.
In that “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote that “all communities and states” are interrelated. He famously declared that “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And he implored his fellow citizens to move with “a sense of great urgency” to help build the brighter future that everyone in this country deserves.
Five decades have passed since Dr. King laid down those immortal words. Yet, as we come together today, his work remains our common pursuit. And the struggle that animated his contemporaries – to fight against injustice, to secure the constitutional rights of all citizens, and to realize the promise articulated in Gideon – is as urgent as ever before.
As we speak, tens of millions of Americans cannot afford the assistance they need to avail themselves of their rights before our court system. Studies have shown that, for every eligible person seeking help from a legal aid program, another eligible person is turned away. And, for all the progress we’ve witnessed since Dr. King’s time – and the significant steps forward that organizations like the Legal Services Corporation have brought about – there’s no denying that a persistent “justice gap” remains.
Estimates suggest that more than 80 percent of civil legal needs faced by low-income individuals currently go unmet. More than 61 million Americans are eligible for civil legal aid – yet only a fraction of them can access it. And the human impact – and moral cost – of these systemic failures is compounded by every individual need that cannot be addressed – from matters involving the care and custody of minor children and dependent adults, to questions of personal finance, housing, employment, and even public safety.
Let me be clear: this is both unacceptable and unsustainable. It is unworthy of a legal system that stands as a model for all the world. And it is incumbent on everyone here to help address these problems – and improve our ability to see that justice is done.
As jurists, government leaders, educators, and members of the private bar – each of the people in this room has an essential role to play in advancing this work. And all of us have a responsibility to serve as sound stewards of our justice system – and servants of those it protects and empowers. For nearly four decades, the Legal Services Corporation has led the way in meeting this responsibility – and assisting those who cannot afford or access quality representation. As this country’s single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income individuals, LSC has made an important difference for millions who are in need. Every day, in more than 800 offices nationwide, LSC-supported providers offer assistance in matters ranging from foreclosure proceedings, to child custody battles, domestic violence disputes, and immigration and refugee cases. You’re calling for – and deploying – cutting-edge technologies that can help deliver new services. You’re fighting to reinvigorate pro bono cooperation. And you’re showing us all how to think more creatively – and act more collaboratively – than ever before.
Even more importantly, you’re proving that civil legal aid doesn’t just open doors to our justice system. It also improves judicial efficiency. And it provides critical reinvestments in underserved communities by saving precious taxpayer dollars, protecting patients’ health, expanding access to public benefits, keeping families together, and offering indigent citizens a pathway out of poverty.
Of course, especially in this time of budgetary uncertainty – when sequestration has imposed untenable cuts across the federal government, and funding for legal aid programs is increasingly hard to come by – I recognize that building support for these initiatives has, in many ways, never been more difficult. But I also know it’s never been more important.
That’s why – as Attorney General – I’ve made expanding access to legal services a major focus for today’s Department of Justice. I’ve been honored to work with Valerie Jarrett, Vice President [Joe] Biden, and others to ensure that this constitutes a priority for leaders across the Administration. And I am proud to report that – together, thanks to government and judicial leaders, members of the private bar, and organizations like LSC – we’re responding to this crisis not with despair, but with action.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative – an office I launched three years ago to help spearhead national efforts to ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless of status or income. Since then, the Access to Justice team has been working closely with state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as a variety of nonprofit and private sector partners – to expand access to quality representation and extend our outreach efforts.
While I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished through this groundbreaking initiative, I’m pleased to report that this work is not relegated to a single office. And many others have stepped forward to answer this important call.
In 2010, our first Senior Counselor for Access to Justice – the incomparable Professor Larry Tribe – urged State Supreme Court officials to establish Access to Justice Commissions in every state. The Conference of Chief Justices responded to this challenge, and – since then – new Commissions have begun to spring up across the country. In addition, just last year – in cooperation with the White House Domestic Policy Council – the Justice Department helped launch an Interagency Roundtable, bringing together 17 agencies to raise awareness about the profound impact civil legal aid services can have in promoting access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability and community well-being. I’d like to thank the Roundtable’s co-chair, Tonya Robinson, for her leadership – along with the many Roundtable representatives from participating agencies who are here today.
Beyond this work, the Department’s Office of Justice Programs is providing critical support for partnerships that educate, train, and equip lawyers to provide civil legal assistance. Many of our United States Attorneys’ Offices are collaborating with the private bar to address the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. And, through the federal government’s own Pro Bono Program, we’re encouraging our agency partners to adopt policies – and help navigate internal restrictions – to make it easier for government lawyers to give back to their communities.
As we heard from our first panel, the importance of pro bono service in helping to close the “justice gap” can hardly be overstated. Every legal professional must use his or her skills and training not simply to make a living – but to make a difference. And it is essential for each of the leaders in this room to keep standing up – and speaking out – about the cause that unites us, and the principles of inclusion and equal justice that Dr. King wrote about 50 years ago today.
Although there can be no question that serious challenges remain before us – as I look around this crowd of committed partners, I can’t help but feel confident in our ability to keep moving forward, to rally additional allies to this cause, and to overcome longstanding deficiencies and disparities. As we recommit ourselves to these efforts this afternoon, know that I am proud to count you as colleagues. I am grateful for your continued leadership. And I look forward to all that we must – and surely will – achieve together in the years to come.