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Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Keynote Remarks During the 2022 National Legal Aid & Defender Association Annual Conference


Arlington, VA
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery 

Thank you, Rhodia, for that kind introduction. April, I am so grateful for your leadership. And thank you to all of the NLADA board and staff for your commitment, including by convening this extraordinary group of people. 

To all of the leaders in this room, thank you for your tireless commitment to access to justice. Today, I’d like to talk about the theme of “meeting the moment." In order for us to meet the moment, we first must respond to a core question: what moment are we in?

Today, and particularly in the wake of a global pandemic, we are in a moment when the justice gap continues to preclude too many from meaningful access to the protections and rights promised by our legal systems. And “access” means so much more than a good day in court.

Today’s moment, is a moment when over three million people in this country are displaced from their homes through evictions in a typical year. Women and people of color, in particular, face a uniquely high risk of being evicted.

This is a moment where about 600,000 people enter prison gates each year, and people go to jail over 10 million times in a typical year. Most of the people in jails have not been convicted, and are detained pretrial — often with the inability to pay a cash bond.

This is a moment where poverty is not only a predictor of contact with the justice system, but is also a frequent outcome. And people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. This is a moment where annually, over 400,000 children are in foster care.

What’s even more troubling, is that when faced with these potentially life altering legal problems, we are also in a moment when low-income people do not get any or enough help with 92% of their civil legal needs. And 14 states still do not guarantee counsel for children in child welfare cases.

We are in a moment when already underpaid and under-resourced public defenders, many of whom were forced to choose between their client’s constitutional rights and their own health and safety during the pandemic, have begun to leave the profession in large numbers.

It is the most vulnerable, those without economic means, and communities of color that are feeling the crisis of this moment the most.

But in this moment where the need feels so overwhelming, we’re also seeing an exciting new commitment to, and focus on, taking bold action to meet this need.

We are standing in a moment of incredible hope, innovation, creativity and determination — with new visions and new approaches to justice.

As I’ve traveled across the country, I’ve seen the frontline responders, like many in this room, re-thinking our legal systems and structures to meet the need, and to dismantle longstanding structural barriers to access. 

For example, in Cincinnati, I toured Child HeLP, an innovative medical-legal partnership between the Cincinnati Children’s primary care centers and the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. With this partnership model, a legal aid attorney on duty sits in an office inside the children’s hospital. The attorney is referred legal issues including hunger, poor housing conditions, domestic violence and inadequate special education services. Child HeLP published a study demonstrating that hospitalization rates for children decreased by 38% when their families received legal assistance. This remarkable study has been able to make the connection between adequate legal assistance and improved health outcomes.

In Utah, the unsheltered community largely resides by the river, and rarely are able to walk into courtrooms to resolve legal issues. In response, public defenders, defense attorneys, judges and court administrators have started taking the court to the people – through Kayak Court. 

Social workers paddle or bike ahead of the legal teams to identify individuals who would be open to legal counsel and resolving their cases.

And right there in a kayak, working on a computer encased in a waterproof bag, judges dismiss warrants and open cases, often for allegations such as public intoxication or public urination.

These innovations, and this level of commitment to justice, are inspiring. They show that although the challenges of this moment are great, so is the renewed commitment to meeting those challenges.

Attorney General Garland has also recognized the critical moment we stand in today and has frequently said one of his highest priorities is this urgent mission of expanding access to justice. 

To dedicate resources and focus to this priority, last year, he announced the reestablishment of the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice as a standalone office in DOJ.

Our mission is to engage in the bold, transformative and systemic work necessary to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protections of our legal systems. 

The Office has since been working on a phased strategic growth plan to establish and imbed a permanent access to justice voice in federal government. We’re modernizing and expanding the office’s work, vision and scope, and we are currently engaged in career hiring to expand our staff.

I was named the Office’s Director just a few months ago, and it is an honor and responsibility that I do not take lightly.

The first time I understood the urgent need to reimagine our legal systems was during an internship at a public defender’s office in undergrad.

My job was to go to the jail where all the people arrested that day were waiting to be assigned a lawyer and to get to court. I was supposed to ask people about their basic needs, to make sure immediate emergencies were dealt with, like access to medication or the well-being of children, and to advise people that their lawyers would soon be in touch with them. 

When I walked into that crowded jail, the stark racial disparities in the makeup of people behind bars shook me to my core. And the sheer desperation for any kind of help, answers, information — moved me to go to law school and become a public defender myself. As a young public defender, I felt the urgency of every client’s situation, and never had the time or resources to ever feel that I had done enough. 

Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy once said that “[We must] seek to insure that the scales [of justice] measure truth, not legal fees.” That is the critical and difficult mandate that is often laid upon the shoulders of public defenders. 

Working to ensure that justice looked the same for those without economic means as it did for the wealthy, for me, led to many sleepless nights, lying awake thinking about a client behind bars, wondering if I could have done more. And that is why I’m here, and why I welcome the incredible responsibility of this position in this particular moment in time. 

It’s because I have seen what the access to justice gap means for communities of color, for low-income communities, for people who have been historically left behind or forgotten, for rural communities, for veterans, for people with disabilities, and for people whose first language is not English.

This is why we are here. These are the communities that require us to rise to the challenge, and to meet this moment. It is through that people-centered lens that our office is building and developing our work. And we’re hard at work already. I’d love to share some of our recent accomplishments.

We’re supporting access to counsel and legal assistance in civil proceedings.

In January, we moved the Federal Government Pro Bono Program into our Office and expanded its resources for the first time in over 20 years. This expansion will allow ATJ to create pathways for thousands of federal attorneys to volunteer to help fill the justice gap.

And last month, we hosted for the first time, a convening of all 132 executive directors of the Legal Services Corporation grantee legal services organizations from across the country at the Justice Department with Attorney General Garland and Associate Attorney General Gupta.

In July, our office supported and assisted to staff a convening hosted by Attorney General Garland and White House Counsel’s Office, with Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and other officials of Lawyers in Defense of Reproductive Rights and Justice to explore partnerships that will ensure access to justice during a complex and changing legal landscape.

And we are expanding support for a robust and well-resourced public defense function.

Our office serves as the principal legal advisor for the Department on the constitutional right to counsel and the other rights guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment, and as the liaison and point of contact between the Department and indigent defense organizations.

We’re not only working to expand and promoting increased resources for public defenders — as highlighted in the Attorney General’s report to the president on Access to Justice, we are also working to ensure that defenders have a voice on government commissions, committees, and working groups, and in legislative and policy decision-making.

In that spirit, just last month, first time in over five years, we hosted a meeting with Justice Department leadership and national public defense organizations, and officially re-launched quarterly convenings with the public defense community. Because the voice, experience and recommendations of public defenders matter.

Access to counsel and support for increased legal assistance and resources is critical. But it must go hand in hand with transformative work to reform the underlying inequities in our legal systems as well. So we’re working on reforms to the criminal justice system.

In April, during Second Chance Month, ATJ led the drafting and publication of the Reentry Coordination Council’s Report, a collaboration of six other federal agencies to present recommendations to Congress on reducing barriers to successful reentry for individuals released from incarceration. 

In conjunction the report, ATJ worked with justice system-impacted individuals to host a reentry simulation that allowed high-level officials from all member agencies to better understand and discuss the complex hurdles and barriers faced by people impacted by the criminal legal system.

And we’re working toward the reform of practices that unfairly criminalize poverty. Most recently, ATJ partnered with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue a statement of interest in the case against the Town of Brookside, Alabama, that alleges an unconstitutional enforcement of municipal fines and fees and seizures of vehicles during traffic stops. The complaint alleges that in Brookside, Alabama, by 2020, half of the city’s $1.2 million revenue was coming entirely from fines, fees and forfeitures, and then that money was being used to fuel the town’s revenue.

Sometimes access to justice also simply means ensuring that people can easily navigate systems to access the promises of government. All too often, a form is too complex, a process to compounded, or a system requires difficult travel, or too many steps to obtain much needed relief. These hurdles can compound barriers already faced by marginalized communities.

To combat these barriers, we are partnering across the federal government to explore reforms to federal policies and programs that can simplify access and reduce the need for legal assistance.

Last fall, Attorney General Garland and the White House Counsel’s Office reconstituted the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, a collaboration of over 28 federal agencies which ATJ directs, staffs and runs, holding the Roundtable First Principal’s Convening and issuing the 2021 report: Access to Justice in the Age of COVID-19

We are now building on last year’s work to convene the 2022 Roundtable with a focus on how federal agencies can simplifying forms, language and processes, in order to reduce the need for legal assistance to access programs and benefits and to resolve issues. 

We are grateful to NLADA for sharing our survey with many of you in this room and we are especially grateful to those of you submitted such detailed and thoughtful responses and recommendations on how to simplify federal forms and processes to make the biggest impact for your clients. 

We are excited to continue the collaboration with you on this goal, and we look forward to sharing the 2022 Roundtable report with you in the coming months.

We are also centering all of our work on the communities most impacted by the lack of access across legal systems, and on racial equity.

We know this is something that NLADA has also prioritized, through the launch of the NLADA Racial Equity Initiative under the leadership and vision of President and CEO April Frazier Camara.

Specifically, our office is leading key efforts in the department’s response to Executive Order 13985 on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the Federal Government, including to promote language access and to expand Justice Department engagement with historically underserved and marginalized communities.

This includes ATJ’s hiring of the department’s first ever department-wide Language Access Coordinator. We are building a language access team to expand access for those who are not English-dominant speakers, both internally across Justice Department programs and the courts we oversee, including the immigration courts; and externally, supporting our state and local partners in this mission.

Just this week, we officially re-launched the Justice Department’s Language Access Working Group, with a vision to ensure that across all Justice Department programs and initiatives, language is not a barrier to accessing justice. And to think creatively and innovatively about equitable approaches to ensure a seat at the table for communities historically marginalized on the basis of the language they speak.

And, our office is providing support for components as they enhance stakeholder engagement to address the needs of marginalized and historically underserved populations, in compliance with the Justice Department’s Equity Plan. 

This includes ensuring that our programs and initiatives advance an equitable approach, are accessible to historically underserved and marginalized communities, are culturally competent, and reduce stigma and bias by using inclusive and person-first approaches and language. 

It also requires us to prioritize the perspectives of impacted communities, and to incorporate their consistent feedback so that our policies are responsive to their concerns and needs.

And finally, ATJ is proud to be reestablishing the United States as a global leader on access to justice. This summer, I joined the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss U.S. efforts to eliminate racial disparities and pursue access to justice. 

And last month, I spoke at the OECD Global Access to Justice Roundtable in Riga, Latvia, where 38 member countries convened to collaborate on people-centered approaches to access to justice.

As I close, I would like to recognize that “meeting the moment,” is a mission that most in this room live and breathe every day.

“Meeting the moment” does not always look flashy or glamorous. And far too rarely is it accompanied by accolades and speeches, awards or recognition.

Instead, “meeting the moment” may look like conducting your own investigations in your free time, traveling to the scene of an incident yourself, interviewing witnesses, and going the extra mile to pursue a robust and constitutional defense for someone who doesn’t have the resources for a team of more than only you.

“Meeting the moment” can also mean those moments you take to just listen to a client. To hear about the complex hurdles of someone facing the loss of a home, or children. Or living in fear and seeking a protective order.

And, “meeting the moment” can also look like losing in court. But having fought incredibly hard for someone who never had anyone fight for them before in their life.

But what this moment demands of all of us is to refuse to accept a widening justice gap, and to creatively and boldly push for a new vision of justice.

As a young public defender, I had a client who was houseless, had mental health issues and consistently racked up new misdemeanor charges for sleeping on the sidewalk. And he always came back to court, with his shopping bag full of citations, dutifully, for each arraignment.

But when I told this client that the system afforded him two options — he could plead guilty or we could fight his cases at trial, he flatly told me he chose neither.

He came back to court each time, and each time I presented him with the only two options under the legal system as it operated. And he just continued to say no – neither of those options was justice.

He knew that a system that would force him to obtain a criminal conviction for being homeless was not justice. And he knew that spending weeks in back to back trials was simply not justice either.

I ended up crafting significant mitigation, and pushing for months. Eventually, once I had tired everyone in that courtroom out, all his citations were dismissed.

This client taught me an invaluable lesson about the mission of justice that I have carried with me throughout my career. This pursuit often requires us to reimagine our systems, and to push for visions of justice that others may not yet see as possible.

We have so much more to do. And so much further to go. But through your dedication to the most vulnerable, the impact you have on each person that you stand with, you are meeting the moment. 

Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated October 28, 2022