Legal Excellence Award Reception Remarks by John G. Levi

Los Angeles, CA
October 3, 2015

Thank you Congressman Schiff for that gracious introduction and for your strong support of LSC during your distinguished service in the House. I have very much valued our meetings in DC.

I also want to commend my fellow awardees for their exemplary contributions to their community — Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Peggy Edwards, and Dr. Stanley Toy. It is a privilege to be included among you.

It is indeed a great honor to receive this Legal Excellence Award, and I am so grateful to Neil Dudovitz and your Board and staff at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County for recognizing me. I had the distinct privilege of meeting with the senior staff yesterday, and I don’t have to tell you what an impressive group they are.

In accepting this award, I do it not for me, but for all of you who devote every day to working on the civil legal problems that confront hundreds, even thousands, of low income Los Angelians.

Most of you have been doing it for years, and you have done so without fanfare and without the financial rewards that many in our profession enjoy.

You are the true heroes today and this award really belongs to you!

As I travel the country as the chair of LSC, I recognize our significant role as the single largest funder of civil legal aid, but I especially appreciate the absolutely vital role legal aid lawyers play every day in improving the lives of our most vulnerable citizens and in upholding America's promise of equal justice.

Thank you for what you do.

I also want to recognize those in the audience from the private bar who donate countless hours of pro bono service to meeting the civil legal needs of our most vulnerable citizens.

Your contributions are indispensable and uphold the finest traditions of our profession.
In fact, just fifty years ago, Bobby Kennedy, then the Attorney General, marked Law Day with a speech that proclaimed pro bono service to the poor to be a fundamental responsibility of our profession:

“Only . . . when we have created in fact a system of equal justice for all — a system which recognizes in fact the dignity of all men — will our profession have lived up to its responsibilities. That job is not going to be done by simply writing a check for $100 — or $1,000 — to the legal aid society. These are jobs that will take the combined commitment of our intellectual and ethical energies — a sustained commitment — a pledge to donate not once or twice but continuously the resources of our profession and our legal system.”

It is fitting that, as we mark that talk given just over a half century ago, we recognize and celebrate the 50th anniversary of N-L-S-L-A , which came to be as the federal government’s quest to provide support for civil legal assistance to low-income Americans took shape during President Johnson’s “war on poverty” with the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Ten years later the Legal Services Corporation was formed charged with a mission to help “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.”

Those of us in the legal aid community know what is needed to remain true to this mission.

We know that money is too scarce and the need is far too great.

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. That is approaching one third of the population.

But 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.

In my view, ultimately the country’s confidence in the fairness of our justice system to work on behalf of all Americans is in the balance. What money is provided by our government for legal assistance is essentially a rounding error, yet the value that it is meant to uphold is hardly a fiscal afterthought. So if those who are thought to know best do not raise their voices when the funding is inadequate, who will? When courts are packed nationwide with millions of pro ses and lawyers and others in the know 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 be?

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.

So we American lawyers, officers of the court, have 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 under law. 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.”

My congratulations again to Neighborhood Legal Services on 50 outstanding years and here’s to many more 50s! Thank you for all that you do!