LSC Forum on Civil Legal Assistance, January 2013

John G. Levi
Remarks at Civil Legal Assistance Forum
Board of Directors
Legal Services Corporation
The Louisian Supreme Court Building
New Orleans, Louisiana
January 25, 2013

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

It is a pleasure to be in New Orleans as Mardi Gras beckons and where football fans are gathering to watch the NFL crown its champion at the Harbaugh Family Super Bowl next Sunday.

This morning, we are hearing from another group of champions— distinguished jurists from around the region and civil legal aid lawyers from across the country— about their perspectives on the crisis in civil legal assistance as well as the threat that this crisis poses to our country’s commitment to equal justice for all and the orderly functioning of our civil justice system.

This program is an outgrowth of a significant forum on the state of civil legal assistance that we co-hosted last April at the White House. We held similarly compelling forums at our subsequent quarterly meetings in July in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in October in Durham, North Carolina. We plan more of these forums at future meetings across the country.

We are particularly grateful to the Louisiana Supreme Court for hosting us in their beautiful building.

And as I noted last night at our pro bono awards reception, we also thank Judge Madeleine Landrieu, her husband and Adams and Reese partner Paige Sensenbrenner, and the Louisiana State Bar Association for their invaluable assistance in making this event possible.

And, finally, we thank our distinguished guests, many of whom have traveled from around the country to be here.

We are especially privileged and honored to be joined this morning by Louisiana’s incoming chief justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Michael Bolin, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht and Florida First District Court of Appeal Judge William Van Nortwick.

We were also supposed to be joined by Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton, but he has just taken ill and sent in his place the general counsel of the Kentucky Court System, Mark Theriault.

These forums are calling attention to the dual challenges now facing legal services programs across the country: significantly reduced resources and historically high demand.

We must more fully educate the public and lawmakers about this growing crisis in civil legal assistance. 

And we must do more to educate our fellow lawyers as to what is at stake because the contours of this crisis have not been fully appreciated by many in our own profession.

At our national LSC Board meetings, bar meetings, and other gatherings of the legal community, I have been frankly astounded by how little many lawyers know about LSC or the growing crisis in civil legal assistance.

When they hear the details, they are extremely concerned, and want to know how they can help.

Many of you are familiar with the statistics, and my fellow Board members have probably memorized them by now, but they bear repeating:

  • The size of the population now eligible for civil legal assistance — Americans with incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line — has grown 10 percent since this LSC Board was nominated in 2009 to more than 61 million, or nearly 20% of the U.S. population. That is an all-time high.

  • In the face of that, LSC’s congressional appropriations have been reduced 17 percent since 2010 to just $348 million this year. In inflation-adjusted dollars that is an all-time low.

  • 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 $878 million in 2012.

  • Legal aid offices, often rural, have closed and LSC-funded programs have eliminated nearly 1,500 positions from 2010 to 2012, more than a 15 percent reduction. Last month, a New York Times op-ed reported an example of what is happening with such cutbacks, noting that in many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of tenants are unrepresented while 90 percent of landlords have counsel.

  • These cutbacks have seriously eroded America’s role as a leader in equal access to justice. In fact, recent studies rank the United States 21st on access to justice for disadvantaged groups and 52nd in the world in terms of access to legal assistance.

The work legal service lawyers do (and I don’t think heroic is too strong a word to describe it) keeps faith with one of America’s core values—equal access to justice—and changes the lives of low-income Americans every day.

For example, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Corporation recently won an important appeal that allowed a domestic violence victim to litigate custody in her refugee state rather than in Louisiana where her abuser sued her.

This case was one of first impression in Louisiana and established the right of domestic violence victims to litigate custody in the refuge state and the power of the courts to decline jurisdiction in favor of the victim when it helps protect the victim and children from further abuse.

In Georgia, an elderly, “catastrophically disabled” veteran was living in an apartment and paying rent he could barely afford on his veteran’s benefits because he lacked the proper documentation to live in his mother’s house, which sat empty and decaying as she was living in a nursing home. 

Georgia Legal Services helped the veteran straighten out the documentation, convinced Georgia Medicaid not to take the mother’s home, and the vet is now able to live in his mother’s house.

These two stories are among the many thousands that occur each week across the country, and today’s program features two panels that will further amplify the importance of having access to this kind of civil legal assistance.

In our first panel discussion, the leading jurists here today from around the region will explore the current challenges in access to civil justice for individuals living in poverty, the challenges for the courts, and the prospects for helpful initiatives and reforms.

In the next panel, experts from around the country will discuss something all-too-relevant to this area--the vital role of civil legal aid in disaster preparedness and relief.

Our Louisiana grantees have been immersed in these kinds of efforts since Katrina and other disasters such as the BP oil spill.

For example, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services estimates that in the first 3 years following Katrina, 90% of its clients were disaster victims, and most of their problems were related to the hurricane in some way.

At the 5 year mark, the SLLS had handled new cases for about 40,000 families and its housing and Road Home probate work alone produced considerably more than $100 million in economic benefits to their clients.

Another LSC grantee, Acadiana Legal Service Corporation, has handled nearly 4,000 disaster-related cases, helping many thousands of Louisianans since Katrina.

In response to the recent Oil Spill, a multistate Gulf Coast Consortium, which includes LSC grantees and other legal services programs from several Gulf Coast states, handled almost 8,000 new claimants' cases and recovered $12.5 million for those individuals and families.

Disasters, of course, strike everywhere, and last week the House passed an emergency funding bill for Hurricane Sandy with $1 million in disaster recovery funding to LSC-- the first time since 1993 that a supplemental appropriations bill has included specific funding for LSC after such a disaster.

This afternoon we will hear further remarks from Justice Dickinson, and also special presentations from each of our three Louisiana programs.

Enough of me—time to hear from you.

To begin, let me introduce my colleague on the LSC Board, Gloria Valencia-Weber, who like the rest of the board, was appointed two and a half years ago by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate.

Gloria has been a professor at the University of Mexico Law School since 1992, where she established the Indian Law Certificate Program and has worked to make the school’s Indian Law Program one of the best in the country.

A bilingual child of Mexican Indian heritage, Gloria is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where she studied under fellow LSC Board member Martha Minow.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce Gloria Valencia-Weber.