Remarks by John. G. Levi at ABA House of Delegates
Prepared Remarks by
Legal Services Corporation Board Chairman John G. Levi
ABA House of Delegates
August 4, 2015
Good morning. Thank you, Madam Chair, for that magnificent introduction, and for giving me the privilege of speaking to the ABA’s House of Delegates.
I also want to thank out-going ABA President William Hubbard for his terrifically inspired leadership and for being such a strong partner with LSC during his year at the helm.
William, as you well know, made expanding access to justice one of his chief priorities, robustly supported LSC’s technology initiatives, and found time in his incredibly busy schedule to speak at a number of LSC events throughout the year. I very much hope we can continue to call on him! Thank you so much, William.
And I also want to add my welcome to Paulette Brown as she assumes the ABA Presidency. We were so fortunate to hear her profound remarks on access to justice at our Albany Board meeting last October, and we look forward to working closely with her in the coming year.
And let me also acknowledge the essential role that the ABA has played in helping found and support LSC.
I am the 10th Chair of the LSC Board of Directors, and when I look back over my tenure and those of my nine predecessors, the ABA has been LSC’s indispensable ally throughout.
Formed in the summer of 1974 as one of the last acts of the Nixon administration, LSC was created “to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation” and “to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.
In pursuing this mission, LSC has worked closely with the ABA through its SCLAID committee, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the Center for Pro Bono, and the Governmental Affairs Office. Then, of course, as your President-elect Linda Klein just mentioned, there are the important and jam packed ABA Days, when you bring lawyers from around the country to Washington to speak to Congress about the importance of adequately funding LSC.
I appear here today as LSC nears the end of its commemoration of the 40th anniversary of its founding.
Last September, many of you joined us as LSC convened a special conference in Washington to open this milestone year.
Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State and former LSC Board Chair Hillary Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Kagan, Attorney General Holder, Solicitor General Verrilli, your President William Hubbard, chief justices from many state supreme courts, and law deans from leading law schools joined more than 100 distinguished panelists and speakers from the legal community, government, and the business and non-profit communities in wide-ranging discussions of the status and future of civil legal aid in America.
At that powerful conference, nearly all of the directors from LSC’s 134 grantees attended, and we heard many compelling ideas for narrowing the serious justice gap — and we will need them all because, as you know, the crisis in civil legal aid is only deepening, with our grantees forced to turn away 50 to 80 percent of those who qualify and are in need for lack of resources.
Last year, more than 63 million Americans qualified for civil legal aid during the entire year and 30 million or so qualified because they lived for two months or more at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline.
The American Bar Foundation’s recent study finds that 80 percent of low-income Americans do not even recognize when they have a legal need. And a Washington State Supreme Court report released just last month found that 70 percent of low-income households in Washington faced a significant civil legal issue in the past 12 months, but three-fourths did not seek or could not obtain legal assistance.
Yet, given these alarming facts, the funding from our Congress for civil legal services stands at a near all-time low in inflation adjusted dollars — in actual dollars a mere $375 million and below the $400 million actually appropriated in the mid 90’s, and less than half of what in today’s dollars would be the $880 million appropriated shortly after LSC’s founding in the 1970s.
Even in 1982, LSC’s inflation adjusted allocation was $600 million, $225 million more than current funding, while the number of people eligible for LSC-funded services then was 46 million — 37 percent fewer than today.
When Legal Services was founded in 1974, 12 percent of our country qualified. Today, that number all year long is 22 percent.
In the face of all this, it is a matter of great concern that the U.S. House of Representatives’ budget passed in June would cut LSC funding by $75 million, down to $300 million. Such a cut would likely force local programs to lay off more than 1,000 staff members, including over 400 attorneys, and possibly close as many as 85 mostly rural offices nationwide.
The Senate later passed a budget bill that would fund LSC at $385 million, and as the budget process moves forward, we at LSC will do all that we can to assure that we get the maximum level of funding.
In my view, ultimately the country’s confidence in the fairness of our justice system to work on behalf of all Americans is very much in the balance.
Justice Scalia went to the heart of the matter at LSC’s 40th when he said: “The American ideal is not for some justice, it is as the Pledge of Allegiance says, ‘Liberty and justice for all,’ or as the Supreme Court pediment has it, ‘equal justice.’” The Justice continued: “I’ve always thought that’s somewhat redundant. Can there be justice if it is not equal? Can there be a just society when some do not have justice? Equality, equal treatment is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice.”
Funding provided by our federal government for civil legal assistance is essentially a rounding error in the federal budget, but the value that it is meant to uphold is hardly a fiscal afterthought.
So if lawyers, those privileged to hold the law degree and formal training we all possess and who are, therefore, thought to know best, do not raise their voices and shout from the mountain tops when the funding is inadequate, who will? When courts are packed with pro ses (they now number in the millions across the country) and lawyers don’t speak up, who will?
When a large enough group of folks feel that the justice system is not accessible for them, what will be their tipping point and when will that occur?
The cracks in the pavements of our highways, the potholes in our streets we can see, but the cracks and potholes in our justice system are just as real but not as easy to see. And if that is difficult for us, how do we ever expect non-lawyers to see them?
So we American lawyers, officers of the court, hold a special responsibility to our fellow countrymen to make sure that our justice system continues to be one that adheres to our founding value of equal justice.
As Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht so forcefully put it in his most recent State of the Judiciary address: “Justice for only those who can afford it is neither justice for all nor justice at all.”
I hope that as the lawyers who lead the profession you will embrace, as I know you do, your special responsibility and that you will use your voice to speak up when the justice system needs you as it does now.
For as Bobby Kennedy so eloquently observed: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls. . . .”
Thank you very much!