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Remarks of LSC Board Chairman John Levi at the LSC Forum on the Importance of Access to Justice (Pittsburgh, 10/21/2013)

Prepared Remarks by
Legal Services Corporation Board Chairman John G. Levi
LSC Forum on the Importance of Access to Justice
October 21, 2013
Pittsburgh, PA

 

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 in this area and the many innovative private partnerships our grantees are using across the country to promote pro bono service.

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 the spring board meeting.

We also returned to the White House this spring for further discussion on expanding access to justice through increased pro bono and technology.

We have held similar forums on these compelling issues at our board meetings in Ann Arbor, Durham and New Orleans and most recently in Denver.

We are so grateful to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Chief Justice Ronald Castille — who joined us for our opening Forum at the White House — for hosting us in this historic courtroom, and to our many distinguished guests.

We are especially privileged and honored to be joined by Chief Justice Brent Benjamin of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia; Chief Judge Ben Clyburn of the District Court of Maryland; and Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly, U.S. District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania.

We are gathered here today as LSC approaches an important milestone — our 40th anniversary.

Established by Congress in 1974 as one of the last acts of the Nixon Administration, LSC has weathered political turmoil and financial challenges to remain the single largest funder of civil legal aid in America.

But as it is poised to enter its fifth decade, LSC and our country are faced with formidable challenges.

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.

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.

These effects have been felt across Pennsylvania, where LSC funding has declined by 2 million dollars, from 14-and-a-quarter million dollars in 2010, to 12-and-a-quarter million dollars in 2012. 

Laurel Legal Services, for example, has lost nearly 40 percent of its staff lawyers since 2010, closed an office last year in Jefferson County that had been open since the 1970s, and largely restricted its representation to cases driven by specific grants or those involving violence, providing only advice in all other instances.

Philadelphia Legal Assistance Center (PLAC) was forced to reduce its paralegal staff by 20 percent, which resulted in the loss of one of only two professionals in the city providing unemployment services to the poor.

PLAC could be facing even more layoffs since the impact of the LSC reductions in funding and the implementation of the sequester will result in a $600,000 shortfall or an additional 20 percent cut for PLAC in 2014.

The shifts in the national poverty population among the various states will make the situation even worse in many parts of the country.

Some states are experiencing a reduction in LSC funding even thought their poverty rates have actually increased because funding allocations by law are based on each state’s share of the total national poverty population.

Pennsylvania, for example, added more than 300,000 people to the poverty rolls from 2000 to 2011, but will experience an additional 6 percent cut in LSC funding because of this census adjustment.

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.

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

And they represent a significant barrier to access to equal justice.  Unrepresented litigants are far less likely to have a positive result in court, especially when they are opposed by parties represented by counsel.

As a recent White Paper by the Conference of Chief Justices noted, civil legal assistance also supports the orderly functioning of the civil justice system as a whole.

A number of states have discovered that each dollar invested in legal aid returns many times its value to the local economy, and Pennsylvania is no exception.

A 2012 study commissioned by the Pennsylvania IOLTA program found that for each dollar spent on legal aid in the state, “11 dollars of quantifiable economic outcomes and savings were realized for all residents of the Commonwealth.”

The distinguished jurists gathered here today will discuss some of these issues in our first panel focused on the importance of access of justice to the judiciary.

It will be moderated by the remarkable Martha Minow, LSC's Vice Chair and Dean of the Harvard Law School.

A second panel made up of executive directors of three LSC grantees and representatives of private organizations they have partnered with to promote pro bono will be moderated by LSC’s extraordinary president Jim Sandman, a former managing partner of Arnold & Porter.

Our luncheon speakers will be the Deans of the University of Pittsburgh Law School, William Carter, Jr., and Duquesne University Law School, Ken Gormley.

Later this afternoon at a reception, the LSC Board will honor five outstanding lawyers, a distinguished law firm, and two prominent legal organizations for their significant pro bono contributions to the eight LSC grantees in Pennsylvania.

We will also be joined at the reception via live stream by Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah and former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburg, and in person by Pennsylvania Bar Association President Forest Myers.

It is now my pleasure to introduce our host, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the oldest appellate court in the country.

Chief Justice Castille was elected to the high court as a Republican in 1993, retained 10 years later, and sworn in as chief justice in 2008. He is seeking a third term in a retention election next month.

Chief Justice Castille’s work on the high court continues a career largely dedicated to serving the public.

After earning a B.S. in Economics from Auburn University in 1966, he was commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, and served as a platoon commander  in Vietnam, where he was wounded in combat.

Chief Justice Castille was awarded a number of medals and citations for his military service, including the Bronze Star with Combat "V" for valor, two Purple Heart medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Following his medical retirement from the Marine Corps in 1968, he earned his law degree at University of Virginia School of Law.

After graduating in 1971, Chief Justice Castille began his legal career in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.  He served 20 years there, first as Deputy District Attorney under then-D.A. Ed Rendell, and later as the District Attorney from 1986 to 1991.

Among his many awards are the 2013 Philadelphia Bar Association’s William J. Brennan Distinguished Jurist Award and the 2011 Pennsylvania Bar Foundation/Pennsylvania Bar Association Judge of the Year Award.

It is my privilege to introduce Chief Justice Ronald Castille.