Opening Remarks by Board Chair John G. Levi | Board of Directors Meeting

Charleston, SC | Board of Directors Meeting | January 2016
January 29, 2016

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 two significant panel discussions.

The first panel of five distinguished jurists from around the country will explore the importance of access to justice to the judiciary. That discussion will be moderated by LSC's remarkable vice chair and the Dean of the Harvard Law School, Martha Minow.

LSC’s outstanding President Jim Sandman will moderate the second panel of four executive directors of LSC grantees who will discuss how they lead and manage cohesive, statewide legal aid organizations.

I want to thank U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel for hosting us in this beautiful courtroom this morning.

We will be privileged to hear remarks from Judge Gergel as well as from Dean Robert Wilcox of the University of South Carolina School of Law and Matthew Richardson, chairman of the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission. 

This program is part of 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.

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

These events, designed to expand our understanding of the crisis in civil legal aid and access to justice, are part of a larger effort I have been privileged to share with the remarkable members of the LSC Board for nearly six years now.

Together with resourceful and hard-working grantees, such as South Carolina Legal Services, we have forged new strategies to meet LSC’s 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.”

Among the significant advances made during this LSC Board’s tenure:

  • Developing a five-year strategic plan with three foundational goals:  maximize the availability, quality, and effectiveness of civil legal services that its grantees provide; become a leading voice for civil legal services for poor Americans; and achieve the highest standards of fiscal responsibility both for itself and its grantees.  We are now developing a new strategic plan.
  • Forming a distinguished fiscal oversight task force, whose recommendations have helped LSC significantly improve its grants management and oversight and helped enable it to close out all pending GAO reports.
  • Convening an outstanding national pro bono task force that produced a series of far-reaching recommendations, including the creation of a pro bono innovation fund to support projects that develop replicable innovations in pro bono services for low-income clients. That recommendation has been embraced by Congress, with a $2.5 million allocation in FY 2014 that was increased to $4 million in 2015 and 2016.
  • Convening LSC's second-ever technology summit — the first was 16 years ago — that developed a blueprint to use technology to provide “some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.” That ambitious objective was adopted this summer by the conference of chief justices.
  • Launching what may prove to be an enduring legacy of this 40th Anniversary year — the Campaign for Justice, a carefully targeted fairly modest effort to raise private funds to complement our Congressional allocation in order to help fund new initiatives that will extend the work of civil legal aid providers around the country. Among those initiatives are:
    • A Midwestern disaster preparedness project to help develop coordinated plans between disaster preparedness organizations and legal service providers in the region.
    • Annual leadership development grants, awarded to 7 LSC grantees last year, to help their leaders hone management and leadership skills.
    • A Rural Summer Legal Corps of more than 30 exceptional law students who want to serve LSC civil legal aid providers in rural locations — starting this summer.
    • A new comprehensive Justice Gap study.
    • The development of a legal aid curriculum for public librarians, who are often the first people low-income Americans consult when seeking help in finding legal aid.
    • A toolkit and online guide that will enable our grantees to obtain better client resource data.
    • An evaluation of the accessibility and usability of statewide and territory-wide legal aid websites, which currently differ in terms of quantity and quality of information.

So as LSC enters its fifth decade, and our Board enters its final years, we and our 134 grantees have much to build on.

But formidable challenges remain. And, folks, we all know what the major challenge is . . . we don’t have nearly the funding  necessary to meet the urgent need.

In 2014, 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.

A recent American Bar Foundation 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 last year 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.

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 $385 million, which includes a $10 million increase over last year for which we are grateful, but it is still 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.

In my opinion, the country’s confidence in the fairness of our justice system to work on behalf of all Americans is in the balance. If lawyers do not sound the alarm when the funding is woefully inadequate, who will? When courts are packed with pro ses and lawyers don’t speak up, who will?

Much is at stake here — the core American value engraved above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court – “Equal Justice Under Law.” As a member of that court, Justice Lewis Powell, eloquently said:

"Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building — it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society.  It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists . . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."

Every day, legal aid attorneys here in South Carolina and across our nation can be counted on to pursue this ideal by ensuring that their clients are treated with fairness and dignity in the resolution of their civil legal problems and that low-income Americans have access to justice.

It is now my privilege to introduce our host, the Honorable Richard M. Gergel, who serves on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.

Judge Gergel is perhaps best known for issuing a landmark ruling in 2014, overturning South Carolina’s bans on same-sex marriage. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Judge Gergel's decision in that case.

Judge Gergel is currently presiding over the trial of Dylann Roof, who is charged with killing nine people in June during a prayer meeting at a historic downtown Charleston church, “Mother” Emanuel AME.

A student of South Carolina civil rights history, Judge Gergel led a recent effort to raise money to erect a statue of the late U.S. Judge Waties Waring in the garden of this courthouse.

A decision of Waring’s is often cited as the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that led to the dismantling of segregation in the nation’s public schools.

Before his nomination by President Obama in 2009, Judge Gergel was president and senior partner with the firm Gergel, Nickles and Solomon, P.A. in Columbia.

He has long been active in the community, having served as President of the Columbia Hebrew Benevolent Society and the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina

A South Carolina native, he received his B.A. and law degree from Duke University.

Please join me in welcoming Judge Richard Gergel.