Remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Jon [Carson]. It is a pleasure to be with you and so many partners – including my good friends Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation, and Eric Washington, Chief Justice of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals – as we kick off today’s important discussions. I also want to thank you and your colleagues in the White House Office of Public Engagement – as well as Mark Childress and the Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative team – for your work in bringing us all together.
It’s a privilege to be among so many innovative and aspiring public servants, as well as 16 remarkable individuals who – because of their commitment to progress, and to using their skills and talents to improve the lives of others – have been designated by President Obama as “Champions of Change.”
All across the country, each one of them is making a difference – by helping people in dire need access legal services; by securing much-needed benefits for disabled children, military families, and veterans; by paving the way for individuals transitioning out of our prisons and jails to become productive members of their communities; and by helping to safeguard – and to empower – the most vulnerable among us.
By providing assistance for families facing foreclosure, victims of domestic violence, displaced immigrants and refugees, and victims of civil rights violations, they are not only helping to ensure justice – they are saving time, court system resources, and precious taxpayer dollars. Across the country, their work is allowing us to address and overcome our most pressing legal challenges – and live up to our nation’s highest ideals.
As these Champions share their experiences and insights with us, we will also explore ways to build on their achievements – and to replicate and amplify their outstanding work. And I have no doubt that, as we hear from them, the future leaders and lawyers who are participating today will be inspired to seek out opportunities to serve individuals and communities in need, and to help fulfill our nation’s founding promise of justice for all.
I’m delighted that so many law students and legal interns are here with us– and that hundreds of students, professors, administrators, and legal scholars are live-streaming this event at nearly 120 law schools in more than 40 states. Your interest, not just in learning about our justice system, but in strengthening it, is a testament to the future that you will help to build. And it’s a tribute to the extraordinary work that, all across the country, students and dedicated professionals alike are helping to lead.
Of course, I’m especially proud of the Justice Department’s contributions to these efforts – and our ongoing commitment to ensuring that our nation’s 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.
Last year, we launched this landmark Initiative for one simple reason: to address a crisis. We recognized a problem that many of you had been calling attention to, and working to overcome, for some time: that, for those serving our legal system, demands have been growing and resources have been shrinking. And far too many Americans have struggled to access the legal advice and assistance they desperately need and deserve.
We also saw that, in communities across the country, many children and adults entering our criminal justice system had nowhere to turn for guidance. In some places, young people were being encouraged to waive their right to counsel; low-income adults weren’t getting the help they needed from underfunded and understaffed public defender offices; and too many individuals were appearing in court with little understanding of their rights, the charges against them, or the potential sentences they faced.
In response, the Justice Department established a new office – dedicated to tackling these challenges by collaborating with state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as nonprofit and private sector partners – to broaden access to quality legal representation. Since June, this essential work has been led by Senior Counselor Mark Childress, who is carrying forward the efforts that Professor Larry Tribe began – and taking creative, collaborative steps to ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless of status, income, or wealth.
Mark and his team – like the 16 Champions we celebrate today – know that this is not easy work. But, in many ways, it has never been more important – or more urgent.
The good news is that meaningful, measurable progress is underway – and we all can be encouraged, specifically, by the progress that these Champions of Change are leading.
Their passion and determination is improving lives and entire communities. And they stand out among the best and most principled legal advocates in this country. Each of them has earned the respect and gratitude of leaders across the Administration – including the President of the United States.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a round of applause for these 16 remarkable men and women – the 2011 Champions of Change.
Now, one of the most important aspects of our Champions’ work is that it makes them role models for the hundreds of law students tuning in right now, from schools all across the country. In just a moment, the first eight of our Champions will have the opportunity to join me in a panel discussion to address some of the questions these students have submitted. This will be followed by a second panel, moderated by Mark, and featuring our other eight Champions.
On behalf of President Obama and my colleagues across this Administration, I am proud stand with you, to support your work, and to count each of you as a partner in ensuring that all Americans have access to legal services – and that no one in this country has to enter a courtroom without fair representation.
I know everyone is looking forward to hearing from each of you – so I’d like to begin with our first question.