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Remarks of LSC Board Chairman John J. Levi at the Howard B. Eisenberg Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner (Milwaukee, 11/2/13)

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

11th Annual
Howard B. Eisenberg
Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner

November 2, 2013
Milwaukee, WI

Thank you John for that gracious introduction, and for your friendship and collaboration for these many years, and thank you so much for inviting me to come up Highway 94 to be with you tonight.

I particularly want to thank the Wisconsin Equal Justice Fund for asking me to this annual event, and join you in saluting tonight’s award winners.

I also want to applaud the important service so ably provided to low-income residents of this state by the three outstanding organizations that will benefit from tonight’s dinner:

- Legal Action of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Judicare
- LSC’s Wisconsin grantees,  and
- Disability Rights Wisconsin. 

It is a real pleasure to be back here in Milwaukee.  One of the first meetings of the Obama-appointed LSC Board was held here in 2010, and a number of you probably attended it.  But even more important to me is that Wisconsin is very much my second home.

Growing up, I spent parts of most summers here, as have our children.

I own a Door County house, pay taxes, and even rode in this fall’s Door County Century Bike Ride — and I’m proud to say I completed all 100 miles.

My wife now has become an expert in giving a Door County wedding as last summer our oldest son was married on a beautiful July evening as the sun set over the Bay.

And as we think about what will happen Monday night (and I do hope for an unlikely Bears win), I am sure I am an unusual Chicago fan in that I also have room in my heart for the green and gold.

I know you did not gather here tonight to hear an autobiography of my time in Wisconsin, but I hope what you hear is my love and respect for the beauty of this magnificent state and its wonderful people.

Those of us gathered here tonight — leaders of the legal community and staff and supporters of these fine civil legal aid organizations — understand what the Legal Services Corporation is and its mission.

That is often not the case.

For much of the general public, the Legal Services Corporation sounds like an outfit that sells legal supplies.

For much of the legal community, LSC is just another Washington acronym and the widening justice gap –the disparity between the legal needs of low-income people and the capacity of our civil justice system to meet those needs– is a murky concept, barely understood, if at all.

As LSC Board Chair, I have been continually struck by what a good job the legal aid community does of speaking to itself about these issues but how little, apparently, the rest of our profession recognizes what I think is a growing threat to one of the essential pillars of our democracy — equal justice under law.

We must do a better job of educating the public — and especially our fellow members of the bar — about the growing crisis.

In the wake of the recent recession, we find ourselves at a time when the number of people eligible for civil legal assistance is at an all-time high – nearly 20% of Americans – while funding for LSC has been cut to just $341 million (after sequestration) this year – an all-time low in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Funding from other sources for LSC programs across the country has also dropped, and combined funding for these programs from all sources fell from $960 million in 2010 to $882 million in 2012.

This decline in funding has had predictably unfortunate results — more than a thousand positions at LSC-funded programs have been eliminated in the last two years, nearly 30, mostly rural, offices have closed, and our programs have been forced to turn away half or more of the eligible individuals seeking assistance because of lack of resources.

Here in Wisconsin, total funding to our grantees has fallen by nearly a million dollars since 2010.

As more low-income Americans are turned away by our nation’s overwhelmed legal aid centers, already overburdened court systems must deal with increasing numbers of individuals who are forced to represent themselves.

In Wisconsin, for example, 70 percent of family law cases in a number of counties now have at least one self-represented litigant.

Nationwide, the number of pro se individuals in our civil courts now reaches well into the millions each year — and such huge numbers are staggering to me, as I am sure they are to you.

As you well know, unrepresented litigants are far less likely to have a positive result in court, especially when they are opposed by parties represented by counsel.

So as LSC, founded in 1974 as one of the last acts of the Nixon administration, is about to enter its 40th year, is this what equal justice in this country should look like?

In this room, we all know the answer to that question, and as Colorado’s U.S. Attorney John Walsh keenly put it at our Board meeting in Denver this past July:

“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 since its founding been the institutional embodiment of this ideal and your work…every its fullest and most concrete realization.

To make sure no one is below the law, we must expand and improve the delivery of civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.

Your LSC Board is working vigorously to obtain adequate Federal funding for civil legal assistance, and at the same time is committed to promoting and expanding pro bono service to better match the available talent pool with the unmet needs of the country’s low-income population.

LSC’s distinguished national Pro Bono Task Force has looked at ways to tackle this problem and is moving to implement a number of them in the coming months.

When we came into office we knew we needed to find an outstanding new President for the Corporation and we did just that in Jim Sandman, and at the same time we were confronted with concerns that LSC was falling short in its approach to oversight.  And our Board appointed a high-level Fiscal Oversight Task Force to make sure that LSC maintains the highest standards of oversight, that our grantees have appropriate internal controls in place.

LSC is also committed to extending the reach of civil legal assistance through increased use of technology.

Through our Technology Initiative Grants program which began over a decade ago, LSC has funded more than 525 tech projects in the past decade, which have helped our programs build a network of websites from coast-to-coast, delivering a wealth of legal information, self-help videos and automated forms to assist low-income individuals with their legal needs.

LSC concluded its second ever Technology Summit earlier this year, and many innovations are already emerging from it, such as the development and expansion of mobile apps, for example, to help pro bono attorneys manage their cases, and clients to get text message reminders for court dates.

LSC is also using its convening power to promote a national dialogue to better educate the country on the gravity of the crisis in civil legal assistance.

We have co-hosted two forums at the White House—in April of 2012 and 2013-- and have held similar regional forums at our national quarterly board meetings in San Diego, Ann Arbor, Durham, New Orleans, Denver and Pittsburgh during the past 2 years.

At the LSC meeting last year in San Diego, the Honorable Deanell Reece Tacha, Dean of the Pepperdine School of Law and the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit powerfully observed:

“When the great majority of the individuals and small businesses of the nation no longer can, or believe they no longer can, get a lawyer, be represented effectively, go to court, settle their disputes in a fair and impartial way, and be treated like every other citizen, we quite simply, have lost the guiding principle of our republic—equal justice under law.  When that goes, the rule of law goes, and when that goes, the great dreams of those patriots who founded and fought for this republic go with it—never to be reclaimed.  Something must be done!”

We at LSC, and I am sure everyone in this room, agree with Dean Tacha and together we need to turn our voices outward and make sure that others in our profession — and in our country — understand what is truly at stake.  

As my father, Edward Levi (who went to Door County all of his life, and who for my 10th birthday took me to the World Series at Milwaukee County Stadium) reminded us 36 years ago in his farewell address as the Seventy-First Attorney General of the United States, the values on which the country is founded “can never be won for all time — they must always be won anew.”

Ladies and gentlemen, all of us in this room share in the responsibility to future generations of Americans to see to it that the promise of equal justice in this country is won anew.

Thank you for inviting me tonight.