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Opening Remarks by LSC Chairman John G. Levi | 2014 White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Prepared Remarks by Legal Services Corporation Board Chairman John G. Levi

White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice

April 8, 2014 Washington, DC

image: John Levi Opening Remarks White House Forum 2014 Access to Justice

Good afternoon and welcome. I am John Levi, the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation.
Thank you for joining us today.

We are grateful to the White House for giving us the opportunity to call attention to the growing crisis in civil legal assistance in this country and to discuss some innovative ways public private partnerships are addressing this problem.

I want to thank the Solicitor General, the White House Counsel, the Associate Attorney General, the First Lady’s Chief of Staff, the ABA president and our other distinguished speakers and panelists for joining us.
And I want to acknowledge and thank the members of Congress, the many judges, justices and other leaders of the legal community who are here, and who also have been turning out at similar forums at our quarterly meetings across the country.
This is the third forum we have co-hosted with the White House.
At the first, President Obama pledged to be a “fierce advocate” for LSC and civil legal assistance.

Last year, Vice President Biden proclaimed equal access to legal representation to be "the single right that makes every other right viable."

We gather at this Forum as LSC approaches its 40th anniversary. We will mark that important milestone beginning in mid-September here in Washington with a gathering of the 134 executive directors and Board chairs of our grantees, together with leaders of our profession, business and government.

I hope you will join us then as we engage in a wide-ranging discussion of the growing Justice Gap — the disparity between the legal needs of low-income people and the capacity of the civil legal aid system to meet those needs — and the consequences for our democracy if we do not address that gap now.

Although the $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress passed earlier this year restored LSC funding to pre-sequestration levels, that funding level is still the second-lowest ever in inflation-adjusted dollars.
In 1995, LSC’s appropriation was $400 million, today nearly 20 years later, it stands at $365 million. And, in the wake of the recent recession, the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance is at an all-time high, nearly 21% of Americans. When LSC was founded in 1974, that number was 12%.

As a result of this drop in funding, nearly 1,300 positions at LSC-funded programs have been eliminated since 2010 — 38 mostly rural offices have closed — cases closed (of which over 80% did not involve litigation) fell 20% from 932,000 in 2010 to 759,000 in 2013, and LSC programs have been forced to turn away half or more of the eligible individuals seeking assistance.

As more low-income Americans are turned away by overwhelmed legal aid centers, already overburdened civil court systems must deal with millions of non-prisoner self-represented civil litigants. For example, last year in California, 4.3 million individuals, and in New York 2.3 million people, tried to navigate the civil court system without a lawyer.

Last month, in testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee, Nebraska Chief Justice Michael G. Heavican, the current president of the Conference of Chief Justices, sounded the alarm:
“The large number of unrepresented citizens overwhelming the nation’s courts has negative consequences not only for them but also for the effectiveness and efficiency of courts…Frontline judges are telling us that the adversarial foundation of our justice system is all too often losing its effectiveness when citizens are deprived of legal counsel.”
Chronic underfunding of civil legal assistance threatens the foundation of our justice system and we, especially lawyers, must step up to preserve this pillar of American society.

We at LSC are trying to play our part by calling attention to the circumstances that exist, and we have begun our first-ever effort to raise private support for fellowships, technology and innovative pro bono efforts.
Our goal, quite simply, is to provide all low-income Americans some form of effective assistance with essential civil legal needs.

Last year, at LSC’s quarterly meeting in Denver, Colorado’s outstanding U.S. Attorney John Walsh sounded a similar theme when describing the work of LSC and its grantees:
“798 years ago … the Magna Carta established that no man, even a king – or in our constitutional system, a President – is or should be above the law. In a sense, the enterprise that all of you are engaged in is achieving the equal but converse principle – that just as no person should be above the law, no person should be below it.”

LSC has been the institutional embodiment of this ideal since its founding. And pro bono service, which our panel today highlights, represents the private bar’s commitment to this mission to deliver civil legal aid to low-income Americans who might otherwise fall below the law. So…it is on our watch and future generations of Americans will depend on what we do now to preserve and enhance the extraordinary gift of the American justice system that we inherited from our ancestors. They have a right to it and they are counting on us.

It is now my great pleasure to introduce Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., the 46th Solicitor General of the United States.

Before assuming this post in 2011, Don served as Deputy Counsel to President Obama and as an Associate Deputy Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Prior to his government service, Don was a partner at Jenner & Block, and co-chaired the firm’s Supreme Court practice.
Don was active in pro bono service throughout his distinguished career in private practice and received notable awards for his contributions to the equal justice community.
Don received his undergraduate degree from Yale and his J.D. from Columbia, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Law Review.
He clerked for the Honorable J. Skelly Wright of the D.C. Circuit and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.
It is a privilege to introduce the Solicitor General of the United States, Don Verrilli.