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Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Keynote Remarks During the National Association of Public Defense Women’s Conference


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Lori, for that kind introduction. Thank you, Geoff, and the rest of the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) board for your incredible work and commitment to justice. It’s an honor to join the NAPD’s Virtual Women’s Conference this year.

I am joining you all today from Riga, Latvia, where I’ve been participating in the 2022 OECD Global Roundtable on Access to Justice. There is worldwide recognition that justice gaps continue to prevent too many people from accessing justice. It is energizing to be here sharing strategies and innovation and collaborating about ways to re-imagine our legal systems so they truly deliver justice for all.

But, even over four thousand miles away, I could not miss the opportunity to be with you all today. As a former public defender myself, this particular gathering, this group, brings me such a deep joy and it is truly and honor to be here.

When I first heard the theme of this year’s conference, it gave me chills. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” There is so much that can be unpacked from that one statement that illustrates what women in public defense uniquely bring to the table.

The first image that came to mind when I heard this theme, is that of Clara Shortridge Folz. Clara was born in Indiana, moved around a lot, and ended up in California. At the age of 15, in 1864, Clara got married. Her family was struggling to make ends meet, and in 1876, Clara’s husband abandoned her and their five children – a devastating blow for a woman in the 19th century.

But, Clara decided — in a startling twist — that she wanted to be a lawyer. She was called “foolish.” She was told that “a woman’s place is at home.” And, at the time, only white male citizens were allowed to be lawyers by law.

But Clara did not take no for an answer. She drafted the state bill that would allow women to become lawyers in the state of California, succeeded, and was the first female lawyer on the entire west coast and the third female attorney in the United States.

She applied to law school, but was denied admission because women were not allowed. Again, Clara did not give up. Clara helped to write and advocate for two unprecedented clauses that were included in the California Constitution guaranteeing equal access to employment and education for women and winning her lawsuit to be admitted to law school.

Clara is most known, however, for pioneering the creation of the public defender office. Early on in her career, she represented many indigent clients in criminal cases, and was shocked by the injustices she saw in the treatment of the accused. She talked about seeing prosecutorial misconduct, inexperienced defense lawyers, schemes to take advantage of vulnerable defendants, and an incredibly large power imbalance between the accused and the prosecutor. And she could not accept it.

Clara came up with the idea of a government-funded public defender office. And she advocated to make the vision real. In 1893, she presented her concept at the Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform at the Chicago World’s Fair. She later drafted a model statute and campaigned for its introduction in numerous state legislatures. At the time, it was a revolutionary and bold idea, and Clara was met with active opposition.

But, she ultimately persuaded the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — and the first public defender office in the country opened in Los Angeles in 1914. Then, the “Foltz Defender Bill” was adopted in 1921 in California statewide – 50 years before Gideon v. Wainwright.

Let me say that again, the first public defender office was established in Los Angeles 50 years before having a public defender was a constitutional right. Because of one woman who was committed to breaking down barriers to justice.

To me, that is one core defining and unique factor of women in public defense. A recognition that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. And the decision to pursue what justice should look like and to fight for that ideal, regardless of the obstacles and in the face of doubt, criticism and disbelief. Regardless of how impossible it may sometimes seem.

I first learned about Clara when I became a public defender in the office that her vision created in Los Angeles, where I daily practiced in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice court building in downtown LA. I was drawn to public defense because I was similarly shocked by the injustices of our system — over 100 years after Clara began her advocacy.

Specifically, it was my first visit to a jail as an undergraduate intern in a public defenders’ office. When I saw the vast racial disparities in the incarcerated population, it shook me to my core. I knew something needed to change.

And as a public defender, I again was struck by the constant churn of low-income people, people of color, people with substance use disorders or mental health issues cycling in and out of the county court system. I knew there had to be a better way. I wanted to be a part of a systemic reform conversation.

I went to Washington, D.C., and was honored to assist with the drafting of the First Step Act — the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation signed into law in decades. I saw firsthand that progress is possible even in the most polarized times. And I saw the value of the voice of a public defender, at the table during those discussions, bringing the perspective of those impacted by criminal justice systems to the policy conversation.

Having this opportunity to be the Director of the Office for Access to Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice is an incredible honor and responsibility that I do not take lightly. I am grateful to stand on the shoulders of former directors who led efforts to increase legal representation in both criminal and civil cases.

Our office’s 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.

We pursue this mission to improve legal systems with three broad, guiding pillars. First, access. We break down barriers to access to legal systems by expanding availability of legal assistance and supporting public defense and by eliminating barriers that exclude people based on economic status, race, identity, language or ability. Second, innovation. We use research, data and innovative strategies to improve fairness and efficiency in legal systems and ensure Justice Department services and programs incorporate modern, evidence-based practices to further equal access to justice. Third, integrity. We promote accountability and integrity of legal systems through systemic and transformational reform.

And we are hard at work already. We are developing many work streams across court systems, but today I’ll focus on updates specifically related to our support for public defenders and work to reform the criminal justice system.

Access to counsel, including support for public defenders, is critical, and is a core focus area for the office.

A critical component of our mandate is to serve as the principal legal advisor for the department on the constitutional right to counsel and the other rights guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We also serve as the liaison between the Justice Department and indigent defense organizations, including public defender organizations.

With this mandate, we’re working to develop efforts to support expanded resources and pay for public defenders. We know that without adequate resources, the constitutional promises of Gideon ring hollow. We know that even when counsel is provided, and it isn’t always provided, that lack of resources can constructively deny access to counsel, by rending the ability to do the work almost impossible.

But we’re also working to ensure the defender voice is prioritized and represented in policy decisions. You have a unique and critical vantage point. What you see every day, in your cases, is relevant to decision-making on justice system improvement. And a robust, well-resourced and supported public defense function is core to the Justice Department’s mission to ensure equal justice under law.

As a first step, last week the Office for Access to Justice hosted the first convening between Department leadership and the national public defense community in over five years. We were honored to have NAPD at that meeting along with other public defense organizations, and with Justice Department leadership including Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke, and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Amy Solomon. The meeting was a productive discussion and collaboration, but it’s only the first of many conversations.

And as a follow on to that meeting, today, I am announcing that the Office for Access to Justice will reconvene quarterly meetings with the public defense community, to ensure effective collaboration and partnership.

While access to justice requires us to support public defenders and access to counsel it also requires us to look at, and to combat the systemic issues and inequities within our legal systems. Under our third prong of integrity, ATJ is prioritizing criminal justice reform as one of our core workstreams, and I will highlight a few areas of our work.

First, ATJ is 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.

The office is working to further expand a robust statement of interest and amicus brief filing practice, that will revitalize the voice of the Justice Department in access to justice litigation. This includes finding ways to utilize this tool to ensure the federal interest is protected in the constitutional right to counsel and the Sixth Amendment.

The office is also engaged in reentry reform. Last year, the Justice Department convened the Reentry Coordination Council (RCC) in compliance with the First Step Act, along with representatives from the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Veteran’s Affairs and Agriculture. Earlier this year, the RCC issued a report to Congress that highlighted barriers to reentry, considered how these barriers continued to be exacerbated by COVID-19, and included specific recommendations on what must be done going forward to further mitigate against these barriers.

In conjunction with the report issuance, we invited senior-level RCC member agency leaders to participate in a reentry simulation, an interactive experience enhanced by facilitated discussions with local community leaders and justice impacted people, to highlight the significant obstacles faced by individuals returning from incarceration to the community, and to better inform future policy.

It’s important to highlight that this was only one example of how our office is also prioritizing the voices of impacted people and communities and promoting community-centered approaches to justice across all of our work.

And this is only the beginning. We’re currently hiring new career attorney positions and growing. In the weeks ahead, we will continue to hone and shape our mission, vision and scope.

We know that we have our work ahead of us.

We are all too aware of the worsening crisis in our indigent defense systems. The systemic underfunding of public defense systems, the overwhelming public defense caseloads, and the denial of essential resources for effective representation. This is what can lead to wrongful convictions, unjust sentences and other injustices especially for marginalized communities.

Adding to these challenges is, of course, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs that, as the Attorney General said, “eliminated an established right that has been an essential component of women’s liberty for half a century – a right that has safeguarded women’s ability to participate fully and equally in society.”  

In July, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and White House Counsel Stuart Delery, joined by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and other high-level officials, hosted a convening of Lawyers in Defense of Reproductive Rights and Justice. ATJ supported and assisted to staff the convening. One critical theme raised at this convening was the need for support for public defenders across the country who will be faced with a rapidly changing and complex criminal legal landscape.

And a few weeks ago, I joined the Tennessee Freedom Circle and Nashville chapter of the American Constitution Society to speak at a training that addressed a post-Dobbs Tennessee, and where panelists spoke about anticipated criminalization of reproductive health care decisions under the Tennessee trigger ban law.

As Attorney General Garland has said, the Justice Department is wholly committed to using every tool at our disposal to protect reproductive freedom.

I will conclude with a quote from Clara Shortridge Foltz that perfectly depicts her spirit, and her unapologetic and bold demand for justice and equity. She said, “They called me the lady lawyer. Adainty soubriquet that enabled me to maintain a dainty manner as I browbeat my way through the marshes of ignorance and prejudice.”

I hope her story renews your energy and commitment, as it does mine. Be bold and stand firm in an unapologetic demand for justice. Be the one that we’ve all been waiting for. Because if we don’t continue to fight for that systemic change, and if we give up on the pursuit of the truest ideal of equal justice, it won’t ever be within reach. The pursuit of systemic change will require creativity and new ideas. It will require collaboration and partnerships. It often requires a vision of a world that others may not yet see. It will often attract opposition. And it is rarely easy.

This is particularly true for women. With unique responsibilities, hurdles and barriers, we are often fighting to ensure that our own voice is heard — while simultaneously fighting to amplify the voices of the voiceless.

Your commitment to this mission continues to ensure the constitution is real for the most vulnerable. It is a unique and critical mandate, and a difficult responsibility that you carry every day.

And as you do, the Office for Access to Justice, and I, look forward to being your supporter, your collaborator and your partner. And we look forward to amplifying your voice.

Thank you again for this invitation.

Access to Justice
Civil Rights
Updated September 23, 2022