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Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice Delivers Remarks at the Legal Aid Listening Session


Los Angeles, CA
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you to the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and Silvia Argueta, to Bet Tzedek and Diego Cartagena, and to Cindy Panuco and Public Counsel. And thank you to all the staff of these organizations here today for this important conversation.

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans and other people of African descent, and to recognize our country’s tragic history from slavery, to Jim Crow, to disenfranchisement, redlining and more.

We cannot celebrate Black History Month without a long hard look at the continued and pervasive injustices faced by Black communities in this country.

It was almost a year ago that I visited many of you here in L.A., with Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, and she spoke with you about the evictions crisis and our work to continue standing up and building the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ).

Since that time, I was honored to be named director of the office. And I recognize the incredible responsibility we carry, as the only federal agency tasked with the pursuit of access to justice in this country.

Access to justice means the fulfilment of our promises and ideals as a country. It means that freedom is truly freedom for all. That equity is truly equity for all. That justice is actually attainable and within reach for all, and not the few.

This mission is critical and urgent, particularly for Black America.

The 2019 California Justice Gap Report released by the State Bar of California found that Black Californians are twice as likely to have household incomes below 125% of poverty level than White Californians.

Studies demonstrate that Black litigants receive an average of 4% higher court fines and lower rates of charge reductions in civil-infraction proceedings. Research confirms that Black low-income fathers face demonstrated racial disparities in family court processes. And according to an Eviction Lab study, filing and eviction rates are, on average, significantly higher for Black renters than for White renters.

Low-income communities and communities of color, particularly Black communities in this country, are disproportionately impacted when there are failures to live up to the promise of access to justice.

Our mission is to break down those barriers to the promises and protections of our legal systems. We work to ensure justice belongs to everyone.

This can mean dismantling the barriers that keep people from accessing legal systems. Like addressing lack of transportation or broadband in rural areas for people who live far from the courthouse steps. Ensuring access to counsel and bolstering support for public defense. Exploring other innovative methods to provide legal help. Providing language access, and simplifying court processes so that people can more easily receive the benefits and protections of our laws.

And yet, in many times, the pursuit of access to justice requires much more than expanding access to the courthouse. It also requires us to engage in the transformational work necessary to reform the laws and legal systems themselves.

Our office is building initiatives and programs with this bold vision. I’d love to give you just a couple of updates on some of the work our office has launched already.

Our office is working to support and promote access to counsel and legal help. Access to legal assistance empowers the community and ensures constitutional and other legal protections are truly equally accessed by all.

One way we’re doing that is by empowering attorneys across the federal government to engage in pro bono work.

Last year, we moved the Federal Government Pro Bono Program into ATJ and expanded its resources for the first time in over twenty years by more than doubling the program staff.

The program assists government lawyers to assess potential conflicts of interest, connects attorneys with legal services organizations – those on the ground doing the work – and assists attorneys in cases they take on. Currently, over 50 federal agencies participate in the Program, and it has a wide reach across the country. And, I’m proud to say that both public counsel and LAFLA are in the Bro Bono Volunteer Guide for the Los Angeles area.

One study found there were 35,940 federal government lawyers employed in 203 federal agencies in 2019. The expansion of this program will allow ATJ to create pathways for thousands of federal attorneys to volunteer and to supplement and support the great work being led by legal services providers.  

Access to justice also requires us to ensure that people can easily navigate systems to access the promises of government and our laws. 

All too often, a form is too complex, a process too compounded, or a system requires difficult travel or too many steps to obtain much needed relief. And simplifying these processes is not just an upgrade like getting the new iPhone. Complex process can mean the difference between accessing federal government benefits for basic necessities like food or housing. And, as demonstrated by Marcel Douglas and Lori Robinson and their work, it can mean the difference between the ability to earn a livelihood or not.

Public Counsel demonstrated in their 2021 report how vendors in Los Angeles County had to navigate multiple offices, secure various documents and follow a complex process to apply for a permit. This wasn’t just an annoyance. When a food vendor has to visit multiple offices, pay thousands of dollars, and meet illogical equipment mandates, in 2021, it meant that only 165 permits were issued when there were estimated 10,000 eligible vendors. It meant that justice was simply not accessed by all.

Our office looked at this simplification issue with the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable last year.

The Office for Access to Justice staffs and direct the work of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable. The Roundtable is co-chaired by Attorney General Garland and White House Counsel and is a collaboration of 28 federal agencies directed to increase access to justice across federal government. 

In 2022, we focused on people-centered approaches to simplifying government forms and processes so the American people can access federal services, benefits and programs, reducing the burden on legal service providers. 

In December, Attorney General Merrick Garland and White House Counsel’s Office hosted the annual principal-level convening of the Roundtable at the White House to highlight recent accomplishments as well as future commitments of the member agencies to expanding access to federal programs and services. The Second Gentleman of the United States Douglass Emhoff offered welcoming remarks, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta spoke and principals attended from of almost every Roundtable member agency.

We look forward to the publication of the Roundtable’s 2022 report soon.

We’re also working to pursue language access. Linguistically marginalized communities and those with limited proficiency in spoken English, including those who are deaf and hard of hearing, cannot be precluded from reporting a crime, understanding their rights, or navigating a court process because of the language they speak.

The last time I was here, Associate Attorney General Gupta mentioned that the Attorney General established the first ever department-wide language access coordinator, within the Office for Access to Justice.

Some of you may know her – she has LA roots: Ana Paula Noguez Mercado. Our Office has since been working to expand this work into a Language Access Team. The Language Access Coordinator and language access work spans across all of the Department’s priorities.

We officially re-launched the Justice Department’s Language Access Working Group, chaired by the Language Access Coordinator, with a vision to ensure that across all Justice Department programs, services and activities we mitigate barriers to access for the millions of individuals don’t speak English as their primary language. And to think creatively and innovatively about equitable approaches to ensure a seat at the table for communities historically marginalized due to the language they speak. The language access team is working on efforts to centralize and expand language access resources, improve awareness and access to language assistance resources and provide training and technical assistance to other offices within DOJ.

We envision that as our language access work continues to develop, we can serve as a national model, and a collaborator with our state and local partners, in the shared goal of language justice.

And we’re working to reinforce the position of the United States as a global leader on access to justice.

Last 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. 

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.

I’ve learned how we can not only promote our own best practices but learn about the great work global partners are initiating, as I’ve discussed access to justice efforts with the Supreme Court of Peru, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, the Colombian Vice-Minister of Justice and the German Minister of Justice.

Finally, our office shares the commitment of many in this room to mitigate against the financial and other economic burdens to accessing justice.

Although the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia that our Constitution prohibits “punishing a person for his [or her] poverty, all too often, fines or fees can be disguised as routine processing or administrative steps. Sometimes, these fees can make filing a case or filing for a protective order out of reach for those who cannot afford it. Other times, when these economic hurdles lead to incarceration they can create an unjust cycle of poverty and the deprivation of liberty. 

One way that our office pursues our mission is through the filing of statements of interest. Under 28 United States Code Section 517, our office can file a brief to “attend to the interests of the United States” in any case pending in any state or federal court. 

Last summer, 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. Plaintiffs in that case allege that Brookside’s police department, town attorney, and municipal courts would seize property and enforce municipal laws in violation of the neutrality requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

The facts in the case allege that Brookside increased its budget through the unconstitutional enforcement of municipal fines and fees and seizures of vehicles during traffic stops.  According to the plaintiffs, both fines and fees collection and vehicle seizures ballooned between 2018 and 2020. In 2018, police ordered 50 cars towed and impounded; by 2020, that number had risen to 789. In the same period, traffic citations rose from 382 to 3,024 per year, nearly an eight-fold increase. Overall, by 2020, revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures made up around 49% of Brookside’s annual revenue.

In that case, our statement of interest asserted that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause bars significant financial and institutional conflicts of interest, including in the enforcement of municipal code fines, fees and vehicle seizures. 

These are some of our initial steps, but we recognize there is much more to be done. 

I want to pause and applaud the great work you’re doing here in Los Angeles and the strides made to pursue access to justice for street vendors.

What your work, here in Los Angeles demonstrates, is how Legal Aid Attorneys are pursuing access to justice through a broad transformational lens. Not only are you defending people in court, you’re proactively filing affirmative litigation and you’re advocating for reforms to pursue justice.

Years ago I was a public defender in LA County. And I remember the devastation and fear of the street vendor clients I represented who were criminally charged for simply making a living and providing for their families.

I remember the face of my client who sold tamales on the street to support her four children, when her husband was very ill and couldn’t work. Facing multiple misdemeanor counts and possible jail time.

It took people not accepting the status quo, and fighting for more, to pass reforms to decriminalize street vending, and laws that aimed to make access to street vending permits easier.

I’ll close by challenging all of us to continue that fight. As we continue to push for this country to live up to it’s ideals for all who live here, and to mitigate against the long time and systemic barriers faced by Black Americans, it will require creativity and new ideas. It means questioning what has always been and asking what could be. It often requires a vision of a justice that others may not yet see. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.” Likewise, without the intentional pursuit of access, justice is not realized. 

Many in this room know this pursuit well. You live it and have committed your careers to access to justice.  

And as you continue on the front lines, I know there are days when it feels as though change doesn’t move as fast as our vision for justice. I hope that don’t give up, and that you see a partner and supporter in the Office for Access to Justice.  

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.

Access to Justice
Updated February 15, 2023