Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | LSC Board Meeting | October 2016

Albuquerque, New Mexico
October 17, 2016

Good afternoon and welcome.

I am John Levi and it is my distinct honor to serve as the 10th Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation.

Thank you for joining us today for these discussions on the importance of access to justice in our country.

I want to thank the University of New Mexico School of Law for making this impressive facility available to us.

But most of all, I want to thank the law school for Gloria Valencia-Weber, a professor here and an invaluable LSC Board member who was instrumental in bringing together these meetings.

We will be privileged in a few minutes to hear from one of the co-deans of the Law School, Sergio Pareja, as well as New Mexico’s outstanding Attorney General Hector Balderas.

This afternoon’s program features two panel discussions.

In the first, distinguished jurists from around the region will explore the importance of access to justice to the judiciary, especially in reference to children’s unmet legal needs and the collaboration of tribal and state courts.

The discussion will be moderated by LSC’s Vice Chair and the Dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow.

As our visit here reaffirms, tribal law has been a focus of the LSC Board; and during our visit to the Acoma Pueblo, in fact, we learned about how their tribal court interfaces with New Mexico Legal Aid.

The second panel focuses on how and why legal aid providers are collaborating with law schools and how these partnerships are bringing more lawyers into the field of civil legal aid.  It will be moderated by LSC’s exceptional President Jim Sandman.

We are gathered here in Albuquerque this week for our final Board meeting of the year, and hard to believe, but actually the final Board meeting during the presidential administration that appointed us.

And while our Board is confirmed well into 2017, it seems a fitting time to take stock of what we have accomplished and what we are doing to lay a foundation for the future.

After taking office six and a half years ago, we were faced with the challenge of finding a new president, and after an exhaustive national search, to use a metaphor appropriate to the sports season, we hit a walk-off home run with Jim Sandman. 

We also developed a far-reaching, and in my view, outstanding five-year strategic plan. We just a few weeks ago completed a revision and extension of that plan to guide LSC for the next five years.

Early in our tenure, the Board formed a distinguished fiscal oversight task force (getting the very best advice we could), whose recommendations helped LSC significantly improve its grants management and oversight and enabled it to close out all then pending GAO concerns.

From the beginning, our Board has been committed to increasing the role the private bar can play in expanding access to justice through pro bono service. In 2011, it formed a 60 person national Pro Bono Task Force, whose remarkable work and report called for a number of useful improvements in our pro bono system, including the creation of a Pro Bono Innovation Fund to encourage new and robust pro bono efforts and partnerships to serve more low-income people.

Congress increased its allocation to $4 million the last two years, up from its initial funding of $2.5 million in LSC’s FY 2014 appropriation.

And, I am pleased to report in that connection that just a couple of weeks ago, LSC awarded pro bono grants to 11 LSC-funded organizations across the country for a wide variety of projects that included using technology to connect low-income populations to the services they need and building partnerships between LSC-funded legal aid programs and the community, law schools, and other local service providers.

The Pro Bono Innovation Fund was modeled in many ways  on our Technology Initiative Grants program, which continues in its 17th year to lead the way in using technology to expand access to justice.

We held our second Tech Summit two years ago and the goal of its influential Tech Summit Report—to provide “some form of effective assistance to 100 percent of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs”—has this year been adopted as a goal by the Conference of Chief Justices.

The LSC Board has also worked to expand our assistance to the nation’s veterans. We launched a nationwide program to introduce veterans’ counseling centers to their nearby LSC grantee civil legal aid clinics so that each is aware of the other and our grantees are better able to address the civil legal and the mental health needs of the many indigent veterans in our midst.

Lead by our grantee in Maine, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, we also developed the very first dedicated site, StatesideLegal.org, dealing specifically with veterans’ issues for clients and lawyers across the nation.

All of us here today are taking part in another continuing initiative of the Board—educating the greater legal community and the public at large about the crisis in the fair accessibility of our civil justice system.

Our LSC Board formally kicked off a national dialogue on the crisis at a Forum we co-hosted at the White House in April of 2012.

We have held similar regional Forums at every LSC Board meeting around the country since and have returned annually to the White House four times as a prelude to ABA Day in April as we continue to call attention to the crisis.  We plan to return next year.

To carry our message beyond the legal aid community—we can no longer afford to leave this issue to just the lawyers—the Board recognized that we must recruit new messengers and launched another initiative, the LSC Leaders Council.

Comprised of leaders in the fields of law, business, academia, sports and other disciplines, the Leaders Council is raising awareness of LSC and its important work across the country.

Former Bush White House counsel Harriet Miers and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, are co-chairing the Council.

Members include public figures such as Bud Selig, Commissioner Emeritus of Major League Baseball, author John Grisham, former Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Dick Thornburgh, Viacom Vice Chair Shari Redstone and one of the luncheon speakers were just privileged to hear, Roberta Ramo,the President of the American Law Institute.

Three Leaders Council members—University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, baseball great Hank Aaron and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young—met earlier this year in Atlanta to call attention to this crisis in civil legal aid.

LSC has also launched a groundbreaking effort to obtain foundation and other private support beyond our Congressional allocation for additional important initiatives, including an evaluation of state and territory-wide legal aid websites, which vary in terms of quantity and quality of information, and the launch of LSC’s first national grant initiative to support training in leadership skills in the field of civil legal aid.

LSC announced in April that it is partnering with Microsoft Corporation, which has committed at least 1 million dollars, and Pro Bono Net to develop statewide “legal portals” to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance.

This summer, we launched our Rural Summer Legal Corps, with 30 law students working at LSC grantees in rural areas across the country.

We have received glowing reports from the field and are delighted that the funding for this program from many law firms is already sufficient to ensure that it will continue for five summers.

One of those fellows, Ramon Hernandez, worked at New Mexico Legal Aid on a variety of issues, including wage theft litigation and worker safety issues.

Last week Ramon told us his experience was “great . . . I had the privilege of working with some amazing people. All of the attorneys were really passionate about what they did and it really motivated me to work hard and make sure that I could help out clients as much as they did.”

The LSC Board, with support from the Hewlett and Kresge Foundations, is also producing early next year a new national report documenting the state of the “justice gap” — the difference between the need for civil legal services and the resources available to meet that need.

This new study, which I am confident will unfortunately reveal a continuing alarming justice gap, should shape a blueprint for action, both at the federal and local levels.

LSC’s 50th Anniversary will be in 2024 and the country’s 250th anniversary is just two years later. What more appropriate time to completely close this justice gap than during the next few years.

And we must do this on behalf of our country.

As Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who we are so honored to have as a panelist this afternoon, said in a newspaper op-ed last year, helping low-income Americans with their civil legal needs “is both a democratic and moral imperative.”  

This echoes Thomas Jefferson’s observation that “the most sacred of the duties of government” is “to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”

We must answer the call of this sacred duty and do all that we can to ensure that all Americans have equal access to justice.

Thank you.

* * * * *

It is now my pleasure to introduce Sergio Pareja, co-Dean and Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico Law School.

He joined the UNM law faculty in 2005 after nearly nine years in private practice in Colorado and Indiana.  His practice and research focused onfederal individual and corporate income tax planning, state and local tax matters, and estate and gift tax planning.

In 2011, Dean Pareja was named by The National Jurist as one of the top law teachers in the country and he has been honored by UNM with a university-wide "Outstanding Teacher of the Year" award.

Dean Pareja's recent research explores ways to make our federal income tax system simpler and more equitable in connection with transfers at death.

He has long worked to ensure that law students have the opportunity to experience other countries and is a founding director of the Madrid Summer Law Institute.

Please join me in welcoming our host, Dean Pareja. 

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