Remarks for Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.
White House Forum on Civil Legal Aid
The White House
Tuesday, April 17th, 2012
Thank you, John [Levi]. I appreciate your kind words, and I’m especially grateful for your leadership as Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation – and for your commitment to the work we’ve gathered to discuss, and to advance.
I’m honored to count you as a partner. And it is a special privilege to join with you in strengthening the work that your father began during his tenure at the Department of Justice. As many of you know, when I first joined the Department – more than three and a half decades ago – I had the opportunity to serve under Attorney General [Ed] Levi. And, today, I not only keep his portrait in my conference room – I strive to keep his example before me, and to carry forward his efforts to fulfill our nation’s promise of equal justice.
|U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., at the Forum on the State of Civil Legal Assistance. (Photo credit: Jeff Martin Photography)|
But, of course, this promise cannot be met by the Justice Department alone. And each one of today’s participants is playing a key role in advancing our work. As we seek out ways to take these activities to the next level, I’m grateful to be among so many dedicated leaders, lawyers, advocates, and allies – especially Jim Sandman, the President of the Legal Services Corporation; Martha Minow, Vice Chair of the LSC Board and Dean of Harvard Law School; and, of course, President Obama.
Today’s forum represents an important step forward in our ongoing efforts to close what’s become known as the “justice gap,” to secure civil legal aid for all those who need it, and to bolster the strength and integrity of our nation’s justice system. It also presents a chance to highlight – and celebrate – the outstanding work that’s already underway in addressing some of the most pressing legal challenges we face. And it provides an essential opportunity not only to reflect on our recent achievements – but also to explore strategies for our continued progress.
We’re especially fortunate to be joined this afternoon by many who have spent their careers on the front lines of this struggle. As John just mentioned, over the past four decades, the Legal Services Corporation has fought to secure representation for – and to protect the legal rights of – millions of Americans. As the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income individuals, LSC-supported providers in over 900 offices across the country offer assistance to victims of domestic violence. They aid homeowners facing foreclosure and tenants facing eviction; assist consumers affected by fraud, lending violations, and bankruptcy; and help secure fundamental workers’ rights. And – despite escalating demands and increasingly limited resources – they do so on a scale that can only be described as extraordinary, handling nearly a million cases – affecting more than 2 million people – every year.
But, of course, this work is not done in isolation – and LSC is consistently inspiring others – in and outside of government – to take action. I’m proud to report that, under this Administration, our nation’s Department of Justice also has taken unprecedented steps to ensure that America’s legal system is accessible, effective, and a model of integrity. In many ways, our commitment to these efforts has never been stronger. And nowhere is this more clear than in the work of the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative – an important new component that we launched just over two years ago, and that has been taking creative, collaborative steps to engage with a wide variety of new partners – including state, local, tribal and federal officials, nonprofit organizations, and experts from across the private sector – ever since.
As a result – and thanks to many of the leaders who are here with us today – LSC, Access to Justice, and a range of allies have been effective in raising awareness about the deficiencies and disparities that we all must address. You’ve helped shine a light on the obstacles that many of the most vulnerable members of our society – including the elderly, the poor, veterans, and people with disabilities – must contend with every day. And you have rallied countless attorneys, advocates, policymakers, and judges to the cause that has become our common purpose, and the sacred responsibility that all members of the legal profession share: helping to fulfill this country’s founding promise of equal justice under law.
There’s no question that we can all be proud of the progress that’s been made – and the results that have been achieved – in recent years. But I also recognize that we cannot yet be satisfied. And the reality is that more help is desperately needed.
In fact, one study, released in 2009, found that less than 20% of the legal problems experienced by low-income individuals are addressed with the help of a private or legal aid lawyer. Particularly in this time of economic challenges – when funding for aid programs is limited, and government budgets are on the chopping block – the urgency of this crisis has been brought into stark focus.
Fortunately, the leaders and advocates in this room have responded not with despair – but with resolve. You’re stretching every dollar. You’re seeking ways to amplify the impact of every resource we can bring to bear. And I want you to know that this Administration stands ready to support your work in any way possible.
That’s why we’re fighting to pass President Obama’s budget, which provides continued financial support for the Legal Services Corporation, and offers the assistance necessary to transform people’s lives and ensure that their rights are protected.
We’re also working to elevate, to encourage, and to engage in pro bono services. I’d like to thank LSC for its innovative efforts to drive this work forward through the Pro Bono Task Force, which presented initial findings to the LSC Board of Directors this morning. And I’d particularly like to recognize the Department leaders – including Deputy Counselor for Access to Justice, Debby Leff; Lynn Overmann, of the Office of Justice Programs; and Mark Childress, who served as Senior Counselor for Access to Justice until President Obama tapped him to serve as a White House Deputy Chief of Staff – for their essential contributions to the work of this Task Force.
Thanks to each of you – and as a result of the ongoing efforts of a wide array of federal initiatives, including those being led by the Office of Justice Programs; the Department’s collaborative work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Counseling Program; the Federal Government Pro Bono Program; and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund – we have good reason to feel optimistic about the record we’ve built, and the momentum we’ve established, when it comes to civil legal aid. But, as I mentioned, government will never be able to bring about the results we need – and that the American people deserve – on its own.
That’s why – as we come together this afternoon – I’m proud to reaffirm the Administration’s commitment to engaging with stakeholders at every level to close the civil-side justice gap. We will continue to collaborate closely with the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association – and a number of foundation and nonprofit partners – to create and strengthen the state-level Access to Justice Commissions that have shown such remarkable promise. And we will keep up our efforts to ensure that every member of our nation’s legal community views their obligation to help expand legal services not merely as a professional obligation – but as a moral imperative.
In advancing this work, I want to thank each of you – once again – for your leadership. I am proud to call you partners – and I – and the rest of our nation – will continue to count on your guidance, your dedication, and your very important work.