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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the D.C. Access to Justice Commission’s Raising the Bar Event


Washington, DC
United States

Good evening and thank you Tim [Webster], for your kind introduction, for your leadership as President of the D.C. Bar and – along with your colleagues at Sidley Austin – for hosting us here tonight.  And thank you Peter [Edelman], not only for your outstanding work as Chair of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, but also for your tireless commitment to the pursuit of justice.  I also want to acknowledge Congresswoman [Eleanor Holmes] Norton, whose lifetime of work has had a profound impact on D.C. residents.  And I want to thank the many elected officials, distinguished judges, engaged advocates and passionate lawyers, for joining us tonight at this energizing and inspiring celebration.

As members of the 46 firms here tonight, you have chosen to use your legal talent, your expertise and your resources to invest in the communities and people most in need.  You believe that our legal system must provide equal access to justice for all.  You help protect the rights of our most vulnerable residents.  And you serve as an example of what the legal profession can achieve for the communities we serve.

Right here in this city, we know the profound challenges facing the most vulnerable among us.  We know that even in our nation’s capital, men and women with no place to live sleep on the street.  We know that families living in poverty too often are having to choose between feeding their kids, paying their bills and heating the homes.  We know that this city’s unemployment rate of 6.5 percent translates into real fear and real hardship for those without savings as a cushion of support.  And we know that this figure does not capture the long-term unemployed, people who are underemployed and people whose employment is highly unstable or in jeopardy.

Our democracy is built upon the idea that the law – if applied fairly and impartially – can serve as a great equalizer and a powerful force for justice.  Of course, the law never guarantees or promises equal outcomes.  But it does establish a set of principles – among them equal protection and fundamental fairness – to level the playing field.  For people facing the reality of poverty day in and day out, however, the ideal of equal justice under the law feels distant, even out of reach.  For those already living paycheck-to-paycheck, a single incident – whether a fine by a court, an eviction by a landlord or a default on a debt – can lead to a cycle of profound problems that ruin lives and tear apart families.

A new study from the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers found that many of the problems facing the poor did in fact have legal solutions.  Yet fewer than 12 percent, or fewer than one in eight of those surveyed, had sought legal assistance.  We can view that statistic as telling in two key ways.  First, many people living in poverty and not versed in the law may not view their problems as legal problems.  As a result, they may miss opportunities the law provides to protect themselves from economic hardship and violations of their rights.  And second, for those who do proactively seek legal assistance, legal aid providers are not always able to meet their needs.  As lawyers, we all recognize these challenges – including the need for community outreach and legal aid funding.        

Of course, this challenge of ensuring access to the law and access to justice extends well beyond this city and throughout our country.  Roughly 63 million people qualify for free civil legal aid in the United States, but more than half of those who seek help find themselves turned away.  Too many dedicated legal aid providers simply lack the funds and the lawyers to serve everyone in need.  As members of the legal profession, each of us has a professional responsibility, and indeed a moral imperative, to address this challenge.

This mission to ensure access to justice for all continues to animate and drive our efforts at the Department of Justice and across the entire administration.  Through our investigation of the Ferguson Police Department last year, we found the city issuing multiple citations with excessive fines and fees for minor violations.  And we found the inability of poor people to pay these fines and fees leading to multiple arrests, jail time and payments that far exceeded the cost of the original ticket.  Our findings in Ferguson and the efforts of countless other people sparked a national dialogue about policing and court practices that fuel the criminalization of poverty.  Just a few weeks ago, we announced a new package of resources, including a Dear Colleague Letter, to help state and local court officials reform unlawful, unfair and counterproductive fine and fee practices.

In another critical area, working with our colleagues at the Office for Access to Justice, we continue to combat the criminalization of homelessness.  In an Idaho case last year, we filed a statement of interest arguing that because every human being must sleep at some time and in some place, punishing a person for sleeping in public – when she has nowhere else to go – criminalizes homelessness and violates the Eighth Amendment.

In addition, just last month, 21 federal agencies came together for the inaugural meeting of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, or LAIR, established by the President and co-chaired by the Justice Department and the White House Domestic Policy Council.  We launched LAIR because we recognize that a wide range of federal programs and policies can more effectively impact the communities we serve – including low-income and other vulnerable populations – when they collaborate with and support civil legal aid.  Across an array of areas – from health care, to housing, to employment, to education – we see the opportunity and the necessity to bring legal aid providers into the policy conversation.

At the Department of Justice, we represent the interests of people across this country in pursuit of justice for all.  And in the Civil Rights Division, we take that responsibility seriously – to enforce the law impartially, to ensure equal protection and to guarantee access to justice – for all people in every community.  And even as an enforcement agency, I also view our work as akin to efforts in the realm of legal aid.  In many of our cases, vulnerable people – some of whom can’t afford an attorney or can’t access legal aid – rely on us to bring lawsuits, craft settlements and pursue justice.  And so I want to share a few stories out of the many with you about our efforts to serve and support those in need.

When an El Salvadorian immigrant – a legal permanent resident and father of three feared losing his job because of a mere technical error with E-Verify – our worker rights hotline and intervention with his employer helped him stay on the job, giving him “peace of mind,” strength and a new positive perception of federal employees.

When a San Diego storage company auctioned off vintage and valuable car parts owned by a master chief petty officer deployed overseas in the U.S. Navy – while still collecting storage fees – we filed a lawsuit and crafted a settlement that provides thousands of dollars in relief.

When a child welfare agency in Massachusetts removed a two-day old infant from her home simply because of her mother’s intellectual disability, we helped reunite the baby girl with her family.  She continues to laugh, play and smile – surrounded by the loving care of her grandparents and mother.  Along with the Department of Health and Human Services, we also issued a letter of findings determining that the state agency in Massachusetts had discriminated against the mother because of her intellectual disability by failing to provide equal reunification services and failing to reasonably modify its service policies.  And we followed up on the letter by issuing guidance and technical assistance to help child welfare agencies and family courts understand their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

But we all know that government does not – and cannot – do this work alone.  At the Department of Justice, we rely on collaboration and support from so many stakeholders – including legal aid lawyers – to address these tough issues and to drive real reform.  We often receive information from legal aid lawyers who see and hear about problems before we do and who provide critical information to help us resolve cases.  And of course, legal aid lawyers themselves litigate many cases on behalf of their clients.

Day in and day out, civil legal aid lawyers work to provide access to justice for the most vulnerable among us.  As members of the legal profession, you all recognize the need to contribute to make our shared vision of an equitable and fair society governed by the rule of law a reality for all. 

I recognize that there are many ways that the private bar can contribute to closing the justice gap.  Raising the Bar recognizes one of the most important ways this can happen: when firms support the people who dedicate their full time careers to serve the vast and too often unmet civil legal needs of people living in poverty in Washington D.C.

While I applaud you for your outstanding efforts thus far, we all know that challenges still lie ahead and that too many people remain unable to access legal aid.  As lawyers – whether we work in public service or the private sector – we must do our part.  We should fulfill our moral obligation to help support those who work day in and day out with un-served and under-served communities.  And we must inspire our colleagues to never waiver in the pursuit of equal justice under the law.

So tonight, let us celebrate our success.  And let us also forge on so that our nation’s capital stands as a beacon of progress for what lawyers and the legal profession can make our country become in the days ahead – a land governed by justice, anchored in fairness and filled with opportunity for all.  Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated August 19, 2016