Skip to main content

Laurence Tribe Speaks at the White House Conference on Closing the Justice Gap for America’s Working Families


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning. I’m Larry Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice at the US Department of Justice, and I’m honored to open today’s White House meeting dedicated to closing the justice gap for America’s working families.

Justice is, quite simply, the cornerstone of American democracy. The most profound aspirations of our nation’s founding could not be satisfied, nor its audacious hopes realized, without meaningful access to justice for all. Access to justice is the tie that binds us all together -- not just those of us in this room -- but all of those across this land who take seriously America’s promise to “establish Justice” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  Whatever our disagreements in this time of contentious division, we should be able to agree that justice must be available not simply as an abstract philosophical ideal, but as an everyday reality, not just as a snapshot from 30,000 feet but as lived experience on the ground. And, though the economic winds may blow hot or cold, strong or weak, the commitment to hold the compass of justice true must set our course.

In asking me to lead the Access to Justice Initiative in the Justice Department, the President and the Attorney General issued a challenge I couldn’t resist: to ensure that the People’s Charter I spent decades studying truly applies to all of us -- including many of the people you’ll meet today, people our new office has met around the country: homeowners, renters, veterans, victims of domestic violence, juveniles pleading guilty without any legal advice. People with limited resources and pressing legal needs, people for whom “access to justice” means the difference between keeping or losing custody of a child, between living in a safe and secure home and living on the street or in constant fear of violence.

When the President and Vice President charged the Justice Department with the mission of making genuine justice -- not as a legal abstraction but as a living, breathing reality -- more meaningfully available to all in a time of economic distress, I realized something I’m sure all of our dedicated justice-seeking partners in this room -- from the badly underfunded and unduly restricted Legal Services Corporation to the American Bar Association and its affiliates -- have learned through experience: that we need to form innovative partnerships cutting across ideological divides, both within government and between government and the nonprofit and private sectors, to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The Access to Justice Initiative has accepted that charge and in conjunction with the Commerce Department this September we helped facilitate the deployment of broadband technology in Washington and North Carolina to make vital resources and services, including legal services, accessible to those otherwise cut off by social and economic circumstances, physical remoteness, or both.

We’re doing something similar in working with the Vice President’s Office and the Office on Violence Against Women to forge partnerships between law school clinics, legal services providers, and law firms in New Orleans and Baltimore that will dedicate the time of young associates to assisting domestic violence victims. Those efforts attack a plague that infects every community in our nation – a plague the Vice President has been pursuing ever since he drafted the Violence Against Women Act a decade and a half ago.

Partnerships of this sort can significantly enlarge the pool of licensed attorneys who assist not just the destitute but the working poor and the struggling middle class, people to whom the loss of one paycheck can mean the difference between stability and crisis.

The work goes on – and yet the challenges continue. The gap in justice remains a chasm. So it’s possible to look across the landscape of America and despair:

To see the crisis in indigent defense and civil legal assistance as the canary in the coalmine exposing deep fissures in our entire legal system;

To focus on the shocking magnitude of the justice gap that puts both criminal and civil justice beyond the reach of nearly all but the most privileged among us;

To despair that the Constitution’s promise of equal justice under law, a promise emblazoned in marble on our Supreme Court and on courthouses across the land is, in Justice Jackson’s deathless phrase, a “promise to the ear to be broken to the hope, like a munificent bequest in a pauper’s will.” To despair that justice is a hollow hope.

But despair defeats possibility. We are, if nothing else, a land of endless possibility - a land that has transcended its morally flawed beginnings through a succession of profound revolutions, some of them inscribed in blood -- a land whose message to the world is a message of unbounded and audacious aspiration.

That message has drawn together the people in this gathering, from the private bar leaders to the dedicated public servants who have partnered with them, from the scholars and experts in the complex and varied areas of law involved to so-called “ordinary” people who have demonstrated extraordinary perseverance in the face of daunting odds.

And that is the message I hope all of you will draw from this event, an event through which the Vice President’s Middle Class Task Force, in partnership with the Access to Justice Initiative, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Labor Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will announce a number of hopeful new collaborations, all designed to help bring the fair and equal opportunity our tradition promises to those who struggle every day to make ends meet.

One promising option involves creating a referral system for wage earners to more easily find competent lawyers who can vindicate their rights as workers.

For veterans who have often served in multiple deployments and have put their lives on the line for their country, we’ll highlight new and practical ways to redeem the solemn promises our country has made to them and to their families.

We’ll look at ways to create effective forums where homeowners can meet with lenders to explore mutually beneficial solutions – solutions that call for the help of professionals who might not have law degrees but who have the training and the understanding to help homeowners rework loans in ways that make mutual economic sense.

We have no illusion that these collaborations will alone transform our national landscape into one of equal justice under law. The task we confront together is much too large for that to be a realistic expectation. It took a village to make this event a reality, and we will have much village-building to do across this country if we are to make lasting progress. But a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, and the steps we announce here today will make a significant difference in the lives of many who struggle to lead decent and healthy lives. And as the progress we make teaches us more about what works and what doesn’t, about when just results can at the same time be efficient, and in some instances cost-saving results, we will be moving our nation closer toward what our founders knew we could become, that city on a hill that can inspire -- and in the end can transform -- the entire globe.

At this point, ladies and gentlemen, it’s my great privilege to turn the podium over to the man whose leadership has made this extraordinary gathering possible: the Vice President of the United States and my good friend, Joe Biden.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016