Opening Remarks by John G. Levi: BoD Meeting San Francisco

October 5, 2015


Opening Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi

Board of Directors Meeting: San Francisco, CA

Monday, October 5, 2015

Good morning and welcome. I am John Levi, the 10th Chairman of the Board of Directors 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 and the vital role business and technology can play in expanding that access, helping to educate our country about the crisis that exists.

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 our spring board meeting.

We have held similar forums at every LSC board meeting since and returned to the White House three times for further high level discussions as we continue to call attention to the gravity of the crisis in civil legal assistance and what it means to our country. We plan to return to the White House yet again this coming April.

I want to thank Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye for hosting us in this beautiful courtroom this morning.

The Chief Justice will join our first panel along with leading jurists from the region for a discussion moderated by LSC's remarkable vice chair and the Dean of the Harvard Law School, Martha Minow.

LSC’s accomplished President Jim Sandman will moderate the second panel which features general counsel from some of the leading legal technology companies.

We will be privileged to hear remarks from Deans of four of California's top law schools — Dean (SUE-JEET) Choudhry of Berkeley Boalt; Dean Johnson of Davis; Dean Magill of Stanford; and Dean Trasvina of UCSF.

We gather here today for our national quarterly meeting and then tomorrow afternoon as LSC concludes the commemoration of its 40th anniversary year as we bring together leaders from the courts, business, and the legal profession for a number of wide-reaching panels to help LSC and our country recognize this important milestone.

Founded as one of the last acts of the Nixon administration, LSC was charged with the 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.”

As it enters its fifth decade pursuing this mission, LSC and its 134 grantees face new challenges, some perhaps more daunting than those it confronted at its founding.

Last year, more than 63 million Americans qualified for civil legal aid during the entire year and 32 million qualified because they lived for two months or more at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline — nearly one-third of the population.

The American Bar Foundation’s recent study found that 80% of low-income Americans do not even recognize when they have a civil legal need. A Washington State Supreme Court report released just last month found that 70% 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.  A recent Boston-bar study showed that over 60% of the legal needs of low-income citizens there went unmet while other studies across the country show that anywhere from 50% to 80% of low-income Americans’ legal needs go unmet.

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, 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 just two years 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.

Here in California, the 11 legal aid organizations funded by LSC are having to contend with a more than 16% cut in funding from all sources from 2010-2014, forcing a nearly 8% reduction in staff and resulting in more than 10% fewer cases handled when the need in California has risen during this same period by nearly 10%.

In the face of all this, a few months ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget that 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.

A few weeks later, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a budget that increased LSC’s budget by $10 million to $385 million.

Even at this higher number, however, LSC funding would still be only one percent of one percent of the budget — far too little to approach addressing the need.

Is making sure that low-income Americans get a fair shake in our civil justice system — only one percent of one percent of our federal budget — is that America’s commitment to justice?

As distinguished Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode has observed:

“‘Equal justice under law’ is one of America’s most proudly proclaimed and widely violated legal principles. It embellishes courthouse entries, ceremonial occasions, and constitutional decisions. But it comes nowhere close to describing the legal system in practice.”

We must do all that we can to change this, and some of what you will hear today and tomorrow, I hope, will help to guide this effort.

Much is at stake, for as Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht so eloquently 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.”

* * * * *

It is now my distinct privilege to introduce our host, the remarkable Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, (cahn-TEEL sah-kah-OO-way), the 28th Chief Justice of California.

The Chief Justice was sworn into office in 2011, and is the first Asian-Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice.

She was nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to succeed the then retiring Chief Justice Ronald George.  A former Sacramento County prosecutor, Cantil-Sakauye spent more than 14 years as a trial judge in the county before Schwarzenegger named her to a state appeals court in 2005.

A Sacramento native, the Chief Justice received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of California’s Davis School of Law.

As Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye has focused on building partnerships to lead the judicial branch out of the state’s worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, using ongoing self-assessment to improve the branch’s efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, and accountability, and improving the public’s access to justice.

Your Chief Justice understands well what is at stake in our country’s widening justice gap, observing in 2014, “Our society has major unmet legal needs that adversely affect low and middle income families.  It’s a situation that threatens the well-being of our democracy.”

It is my great pleasure to introduce the Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye.