Thank you, Dean [Martha] Minow, for those kind words – and thank you all for being here. I also want to recognize, and thank, my good friends John Levi and Jim Sandman for their leadership of the Legal Services Corporation over the years – and for the lifetimes of tireless work that they have dedicated to vulnerable populations from coast to coast. Finally, I want to thank each and every one of you – the dedicated men and women who are making LSC’s work possible; who are helping to shine a light on the current challenges facing the legal aid community; and who are leading us to redouble our efforts to forge the more just society that all Americans deserve. It’s gratifying to see so many diverse people and interests – from academia and government service, to private practice and corporate enterprise – converging to support equal justice under law.
Forty years ago, in the last days of the Nixon Administration, an idea that had its roots in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society took hold in American law. With the bipartisan passage and signing of the Legal Services Corporation Act, our country took a crucial step to codify its commitment to justice for all. And in the decades since, LSC has grown to become the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans, providing help and hope to countless individuals and families who are too often overlooked – and too often underserved.
Today, in more than 800 offices nationwide, attorneys and staff affiliated with LSC help obtain protective and restraining orders for victims of domestic violence, help fathers and mothers keep custody of their children, and help family members attain guardianship for young people who have lost their parents. They support families at risk of losing their homes, veterans in need of federal resources, and disabled Americans who are being denied important benefits. And they stand guard against unscrupulous lenders and dishonest employers who take advantage of those who are vulnerable.
Every day, your efforts not only change lives – they transform entire communities. 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. They play a vital role in helping to close the “justice gap” that too often separates low-income individuals from the wealthy. And without the critical help that LSC provides, many more Americans would find themselves unable to exercise their basic rights. As my predecessor as Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, once said – roughly a decade before this organization’s founding – “Unasserted, unknown, unavailable rights are no rights at all.”
Of course, you perform this work because you understand that legal aid is nothing less than a professional responsibility, a moral obligation, and a national duty. It lends meaning to our dearest values and strength to the application of our highest ideals. And that’s why I want to make it abundantly clear this evening that – at every level of our nation’s Department of Justice – my colleagues and I are proud to stand with you. And we are committed to doing our part.
In recent years, under the leadership of President Obama, we’ve taken historic steps to ensure that basic legal services are available, accessible, and affordable for more and more people in this country. Through the Access to Justice Initiative I launched in 2010 – and which is well-represented this evening by our Acting Senior Counselor, Karen Lash, and her colleagues – we’re working closely 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.
At the center of this work – in collaboration with the White House Domestic Policy Council – we have established the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, or LAIR, a group of 18 federal agencies dedicated to examining current programs and practices in order to create better outcomes. As you know, this roundtable has been co-chaired by Associate Attorney General Tony West, who addressed this conference yesterday as one of his last official duties before leaving office – and without whose leadership it would not be as successful as it is today. Already, LAIR is performing important work; it has contributed to our Access to Justice Toolkit, a dynamic resource 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 people across the country.
For example, this coming fall – thanks to a partnership between our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Department of Housing and Urban Development – HUD will offer a new grant to support collaborations between HUD-funded organizations, and civil legal aid programs and public defender offices. These collaborations will focus on expunging and sealing juvenile records – thus improving the chances that reentering youth will be able to obtain degrees, find work, and secure housing.
Beyond our formal interagency efforts, we’re also working to empower individual public servants to contribute in their spare time – so our employees can help lead by example.
Through the federal government’s Pro Bono Program, we’re encouraging our agency partners to adopt policies – and help navigate internal restrictions – to make it easier for government lawyers to give back to their communities. Thanks to the Justice Department’s Laura Klein – and the broad and enthusiastic support of our partners – no fewer than 30 federal agencies currently have pro bono policies encouraging their lawyers to do pro bono work. The program is already operating in Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and most recently Colorado. And we’re working to expand it to U.S. Attorney’s Offices throughout the country – because we believe, as you do, that every legal professional must use his or her skills not simply to make a living, but to make a difference.
Clearly, thanks to your leadership – and this Administration’s steadfast commitment – there can be no question that the last few years have been marked by real, tangible progress. Yet we’ve also suffered budget cuts and other setbacks. And the scope of the problem we face is astonishing. Estimates suggest that more than 80 percent of civil legal needs go unmet among low-income people. For every eligible person who receives help from a legal aid program, another eligible person is turned away. In total, over 61 million Americans are eligible for civil legal aid, but only a fraction of that number can access it. And despite the steps forward we’ve witnessed in recent years, I believe it’s incumbent on all of us, as individuals, as legal professionals, and as a nation, to do even more.
That’s why the Administration – and the Justice Department in particular – is seeking new funds to increase our commitment to civil legal aid. Our 2015 budget request calls for a brand-new $5 million competitive grant program to support the creation of integrated civil legal aid delivery systems across the country. The request also allocates almost $3 million to build the department’s capacity for research and data collection related to civil legal aid.
This is important funding that, if approved by Congress, would improve delivery methods and increase our understanding of this crisis. By itself, though, I recognize that it still falls short of the level of support we desperately need. And that’s why tonight – together – we need to go even further.
This evening, I am calling on Congress to come together in a bipartisan manner once more – just as they did 40 years ago, when LSC was created – to fund the Legal Services Corporation with $430 million in Fiscal Year 2015, an increase of 18 percent over 2014. I’m calling on Congress to lift onerous restrictions that prevent LSC lawyers from filing class action lawsuits – and that apply obstructive guidelines to all funds, including private funds, raised by LSC grantees. And I’m calling on Congress to stand with the diverse and nonpartisan group of leaders in this room – leaders from across the political spectrum and every segment of the legal profession – in addressing this urgent need; in advancing our commitment to equal justice; and in extending the full rights and protections of America’s legal system to everyone in this country.
This is not – and it has never been – a divisive or partisan issue. It’s fundamentally an American issue. It’s about the values that unite us, that drive LSC’s daily work, and that are central to our identity as a nation. It’s about the promise that lies at the heart of America’s enduring pursuit of equal justice for all. And it’s about the principles that have animated this country since its earliest days; that once inspired each of us to build a career in the service of the law; and that must drive our continuing efforts to ensure that access to justice is not a privilege afforded to a fortunate few, but the birthright – and the obligation – of every citizen.
Now, like you, I’m under no illusions that – even if Congress provides this increased funding – we’ll be able to close the “justice gap” overnight, or easily bring about the progress we seek. This work will continue to demand both courage and conviction. It will require every resource we can bring to bear. Never forget - positive change is not inevitable. It is the product of vision, hard work and perseverance.
But as I look around this room tonight – at the group of dedicated attorneys and fierce advocates who have given so much to this cause over the last 40 years – I cannot help but feel confident in where your leadership will take us over the next 40. I am honored to stand with you in this work. Wherever I am, and whatever I do, I will always be proud to count you as colleagues and partners in this most just cause. I wish you all a wonderful 40th anniversary and, on behalf of a grateful nation, express my deep appreciation for all your efforts to make ours a more perfect union.