Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Leon [Harris], for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a privilege to stand among so many good friends, valued colleagues, and critical partners who do such great work – each and every day – to help realize the promise of equal justice for low-income residents of the District of Columbia. I’d like to thank all of the board members, staff members, clients, and supporters of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program for inviting me to celebrate with you tonight. And in that regard I'd like to especially thank my colleague and friend Bing Leverich. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and working closely with, many of the leaders in this room for quite a long time – since my service as United States Attorney here in Washington, and of course my time in private practice at Covington and Burling. And it’s a tremendous honor to share this occasion with you.
I’d like to take a moment to recognize each of the dedicated men and women who form the backbone of this great organization – who make NLSP’s work possible not only by calling attention to the challenges facing so many D.C. residents, but by lending their time, their legal training, and their considerable talents to addressing these challenges – and forging the more just and perfect society that all Americans deserve. Your work helps to improve, and even to transform, lives across this city. And that’s why, more than anything else, I’m here tonight to say “thank you” for all that you do.
As you may know, about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak at an event marking the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation, just across town. I was reminded, that evening, of the remarkable progress that our nation has seen in confronting – and beginning to close – the “justice gap” in so many communities from coast to coast. Tonight, as we gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, I am also reminded that, thanks to you, the history of legal aid in this country – and especially here in Washington, D.C. – significantly predates the national consensus that has emerged on the need to create programs like LSC, and to provide a stable source of funding for civil legal aid from coast to coast.
For half a century, this outstanding organization has blazed a trail – and set a standard – for many others to follow. Over the past five decades, NLSP has been embedded directly in the communities that need your help the most. Your work has often gone unheralded in the halls of government and in corporate office buildings across this city – because the problems of those in need are too often invisible to those in power. But to the people you serve – the men and women in Washington’s neighborhoods who cannot afford the representation they desperately need, some of whom are here with us tonight – you have consistently been both visible and accessible.
What you do – providing high-quality legal assistance to people who cannot afford it – is critically important. But just as important is where you do it – on the ground, on the front lines of our fight for equal justice, and in the communities where your clients live, where they work, and where their children go to school. Your efforts, day in and day out, support self-sufficiency. They help to restore dignity. And they have the potential to bring impoverished and at-risk people out of the shadows – addressing basic needs and making institutions accountable to the people they serve.
The power – and the impact – of this work would be difficult to overstate. In the cases NLSP handles every year, as well as the numerous workshops and clinics that you conduct, you touch the lives of thousands of individuals and families. You help to obtain protective and restraining orders for victims of domestic violence. You help fathers and mothers keep custody of their children. And you help family members attain guardianship for young people who have lost their parents.
Your work supports families that are at risk of losing their homes, veterans in need of federal resources, and disabled Americans who are being denied important benefits. And through your abiding commitment to excellence – and your relentless dedication to the pursuit of justice – you send a strong and unmistakable message to unscrupulous lenders and dishonest employers who take advantage of vulnerable populations: reminding them that our legal system serves all people equally – and the law provides powerful tools for holding wrongdoers to account.
Every day, your efforts not only change lives for the better – they save precious taxpayer dollars, protect patients’ health, expand access to public benefits, keep families together, and offer disadvantaged citizens a pathway out of poverty. On a regular and ongoing basis, NLSP helps to strengthen the fabric of communities throughout the District of Columbia. And every lawyer who contributes to this work plays a vital role in helping to close the “justice gap” that separates low-income individuals from the wealthy.
There can be no question, as we come together tonight, that – without the critical help that NLSP provides – many more D.C. residents would find themselves unable to exercise their basic rights. After all, as my predecessor as Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, once said: “Unasserted, unknown, unavailable rights are no rights at all.”
That’s why it’s particularly noteworthy that Neighborhood Legal Services has never drawn a bright line between your exemplary efforts in the courtroom and your broader commitment to the communities you serve. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Throughout your history – and especially in recent years – NLSP has frequently sought opportunities to build partnerships with great community-based organizations like job training programs. And you’ve brought significant legal information and resources into the areas you serve, including by holding clinics at the public library.
It was NLSP’s work that established the principle of the implied warranty of habitability in landlord-tenant relationships – work that continues in ongoing challenges to substandard housing conditions, in national efforts to preserve affordable housing, and in NLSP’s role in a new initiative called the “Preserving Our Neighborhoods” Task Force. Through this important effort, you’re assisting community members with identifying vacant and blighted properties – and then working with local government leaders and other partners to return these homes to productive use.
This is exactly the kind of creative lawyering – and close community engagement – that can make a profound difference in the lives of those in need. It’s the kind of work you’ve carried on – with remarkable tenacity – despite the unprecedented budget cuts and other obstacles you’ve faced in the last few years. And it’s emblematic of the proud history that this distinguished group has gathered to celebrate – and which we stand poised to build upon as we look to the future.
I know that, for the leaders in this room – as for so many others in our chosen profession – providing civil legal aid is much more than just a professional responsibility. It’s also a personal obligation. It’s a national duty. And it’s a moral imperative that lends meaning to the promise of equal justice – and weight to the pursuit of our highest ideals.
For my colleagues at every level of the U.S. Department of Justice – and for me – it’s also a firm commitment and a top priority. And it has driven us, in recent years – under the leadership of President Obama – to take historic steps forward when it comes to ensuring that basic legal services are available, accessible, and affordable for more and more people in this country.
As we speak, through the landmark Access to Justice Initiative I launched in 2010, we’re working side-by-side with state, local, tribal and federal officials, as well as an extensive network of nonprofit and private sector partners, to extend quality legal representation to low-income Americans. And we’re striving to make permanent the gains we’ve witnessed in this important area.
In collaboration with the White House Domestic Policy Council, we have established the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable – which we affectionately call “LAIR” – a group of 18 federal agencies dedicated to examining current programs and practices in order to create better outcomes. Already, LAIR is performing vital work. It has contributed to our Access to Justice Toolkit, a dynamic resource that’s being made available on the department’s website. And it will continue to encourage the kind of strong interagency cooperation that’s making a real difference in the lives of so many.
My colleagues and I have also taken a number of innovative steps to bring new tools to bear in the fight to expand legal aid – including resources that have been made available by recent civil and criminal enforcement actions. Since 2009, the Justice Department has attained significant resolutions – including some of the largest on record – with major financial institutions, some of which have addressed behavior that contributed to the financial and housing crisis of 2008. As part of the consumer relief packages we’ve negotiated, we have sought creative ways to ensure that homeowners and victimized consumers have access to affordable legal aid to help them stay in their homes.
Had this kind of assistance been available at the height of the financial crisis, I believe that tremendous pain and hardship might have been averted. And that’s partially why, in securing relief for those who have been harmed, the department has worked to shore up state-based Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts – or “IOLTAs” – that had been severely depleted during the crisis.
As you know, these organizations are among the largest sources of non-governmental funding to increase access to justice for low-income people. Under our last two major financial settlements – with Citigroup and Bank of America – we obtained significant donations from those banks to state-based IOLTAs. The support for legal aid that was included in those two settlements alone totals a minimum of $45 million. And we know these resources will be put to good use in furtherance of these agreements – by helping to prevent wrongful foreclosures and providing legal assistance related to community redevelopment.
Going forward – with these kinds of innovations, with the renewed and reinvigorated commitment of this Administration, and with strong and lasting partnerships between groups like this one and the department I am honored to lead – I’m confident that we will continue to expand access to legal services and keep building upon the progress you’ve made possible over the last half-century. I’m optimistic that we will extend our reach further and further into the hardest-hit communities that need our attention the most. And I’m certain that – although my time at the Justice Department, and my career in public service, will soon be drawing to a close – my colleagues’ commitment to this work will only grow stronger. Together, we will be proactive in addressing the needs of low-income clients. And we’ll keep striving to close the “justice gap” and make more inclusive the greatest legal system the world has ever known.
Although my own path will soon take me in a different direction, I want you to know that my personal dedication to this work – and my determination to find new ways to contribute, to serve, and to strengthen the country I love so dearly – will never wane and never waver. I will always be proud of everything we’ve accomplished over the past six years – and humbled to count you as colleagues in the considerable work that remains. I look forward to everything we’ll do together in the months and years to come. And I am certain – as I look around this crowd of friends, partners, and passionate advocates for those whom the law protects and empowers – that NLSP’s successes during your first 50 years will be matched only by your achievements over the next 50.
Congratulations, once again, on this milestone anniversary. Thank you for everything that you do.