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Opening Remarks by LSC Chairman John G. Levi at Board of Directors Meeting Austin, TX 2014

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

Panel

Opening Remarks

January 24, 2014

Supreme Court of Texas
Austin, Texas


Good morning and welcome.  I am John Levi, the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation.

Thank you for joining us today for these significant panel discussions on the importance of access to justice to the judiciary and how technology has the potential to facilitate this access.

This program continues a national dialogue on civil legal assistance that LSC formally kicked off at a forum we co-hosted at the White House in April of 2012 in conjunction with our spring board meeting.

We have held similar forums at every LSC board meeting since and returned to the White House last spring for further high level discussions as we continue to call attention to the gravity of the crisis in civil legal assistance and what it means to our country.

We are especially grateful to Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht for hosting us today and the Texas Supreme Court staff for helping us organize it.

Chief Justice Hecht joined us on a panel at LSC’s quarterly meeting a year ago in New Orleans, and now we are privileged to join him here in his own splendid courtroom for another, and we are so grateful.

We are also privileged….and honored…to be joined by distinguished jurists from five nearby states taking part in our first panel discussion.

They will be introduced shortly by the moderator of that panel, the extraordinary Martha Minow, LSC's Vice Chair and Dean of the Harvard Law School.

We gather here today as LSC approaches its 40th anniversary.

We will mark this important milestone beginning this fall with a gathering in Washington of leaders of our profession, business and government, as well as representatives of our grantees and others in the legal aid community to further educate our country and ourselves about the growing crisis in civil legal aid and explore ways to significantly expand access to justice to low income Americans.

While the $1.1 trillion spending bill passed last week helpfully restores LSC funding to pre-sequestration levels and allocates two-and-a-half million dollars for a new Pro Bono Innovation Fund, as called for by our national Pro Bono Task Force, our funding level is still the second-lowest ever in inflation-adjusted dollars, and we just cannot rest at this low funding level.  In 1995 LSC’s appropriation was $400 million, today nearly 20 years lter it stands at $365 million.

And, today, in the wake of the recent recession, the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance is at an all-time high, more than 20% of Americans. When LSC was founded, that number was 12%.

As a result of this low funding, more than a thousand positions at LSC-funded programs have been eliminated in the last two years — over 30, mostly rural, offices have closed, and LSC programs have been forced to turn away half or more of the eligible individuals seeking assistance because of lack of resources.

And as more low-income Americans are turned away by overwhelmed legal aid centers, already overburdened civil court systems must deal with what we are told is a flood of millions of non-prisoner self-represented civil litigants.

The effects have rippled across Texas.

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, for example, was forced to cut staff last year by about 15 percent, laying off 15 attorneys and 16 support staff.  In addition, it reduced already low salaries across-the-board by 6.25%, eliminated pension payments, and reduced insurance benefits.   It began the year with one lawyer for about every 14,000 eligible residents and ended it with one lawyer for about every 17,000 eligible clients.

At Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, continuing staff reductions — a 35% percent cut in staff attorneys in the last five years — have taken a significant toll on services offered and many NorthWest Texas offices have stopped handling almost all family law cases that do not involve domestic violence.

Cutbacks like these, which are happening across the country, threaten the future of a system of civil legal aid.

And that threat is not only to the low-income Americans but also to all of us who believe in the rule of law.

In 2011,  then-Justice Hecht and Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson eloquently wrote in a letter to a Texas legislator:

“The civil justice system is where people can claim for themselves the benefits of the rule of law. It is where the promises of the rule of law become real. A society that denies access to the courts for the least among us denigrates the law for all of us.”

The distinguished jurists gathered here today will discuss some of these issues in our first panel.

A second panel made up of legal aid lawyers and technology specialists will discuss how technology can be used to help expand access to justice.

It will be moderated by LSC’s outstanding president Jim Sandman, who came to LSC from distinguished roles in the profession including as a former managing partner of Arnold & Porter law firm.

Today’s panel comes just one week after LSC's enormously successful 14th TIG Conference, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Several weeks earlier, LSC released the report of its second-ever Technology Summit, a far-reaching blueprint for using technology to provide all Americans with some form of effective assistance with their essential civil legal needs.

At lunch, we are delighted that our speaker will be former White House Counsel to President George W. Bush, Harriet Miers, now a Lock Lorde partner and always a trail blazer for women in the Texas legal community.

Before the panels, we have two wonderful speakers to welcome us to Texas, and it is now my pleasure to introduce the first, our host, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Chief Justice Hecht was appointed to this post last year, and has served on the high court since 1988. Next year, in fact, he will become the longest-serving Supreme Court member in Texas history.

Chief Justice Hecht has been responsible for the Court’s efforts to assure that the poor have basic legal services and has worked diligently — and effectively — to secure congressional and legislative support for civil legal aid.

He is the Court's liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Commission.

Chief Justice Hecht earned a B.A. degree from Yale University and his J.D. from Southern Methodist University School of Law.

It is my pleasure to introduce your remarkable Chef Justice,  Nathan Hecht.