Opening Remarks by Board Chair John G. Levi | White House Forum

Washington, DC | White House Forum | April 19, 2016
May 2, 2016

Good afternoon.  I am John Levi, and it is my distinct privilege and honor to serve as the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation.

We are so grateful to the White House for giving us this opportunity once again to call attention to the crisis that exists in access to our justice system for low-income Americans. 

I especially want to thank President Obama for his strong support of LSC and for appointing our wonderful LSC Board, and although this is the final such Forum of his administration, our Board is confirmed through mid-2017, so I am going to be optimistic and say that we plan to be back next year.

I want to thank the members of Congress and all of you who have taken time out of your busy schedules to join us here and at similar forums we have convened at our quarterly Board meetings.

Finally, I want to profoundly thank our entire Board here today:

Martha Minow
Robert Grey
Charles Keckler
Harry Korrell
Victor Maddox
Laurie Mikva
Father Joseph Pius Pietrzyk
Julie Reiskin
Gloria Valencia-Weber

I‘d like them all to stand and be acknowledged for their tremendous commitment to the mission of LSC, and their always cheerful willingness to take on so many more things than they probably ever imagined would be on their plates when they accepted these appointments.

One of the first and best things this Board did was hire Jim Sandman, who has been an exceptional president.

When the Board came into office six years ago, we recognized that while the legal aid community was doing a great job of talking to itself, their message of concern was not resonating very far beyond.

We needed to do a better job of opening the doors and windows, and we must continue to do so to educate the greater legal community and the public at large about the crisis and what I believe it means for the future of our democracy.

Unfortunately, the public may believe that issues affecting our justice system must be the province only of lawyers.

Actually, many lawyers probably think this way, too.   

But the idea of equal access to justice is a core value of our country, and the crisis in access to our justice system for low-income Americans should be everyone’s concern.

Last year, more than 61 million Americans qualified for civil legal aid during the entire year, and 30 million more qualified because they lived for two months or more at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline — nearly one-third of our population.

But LSC funding from our Congress continues at a near all-time low in inflation adjusted dollars — in actual dollars $385 million, which 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, when only 12 percent of the population qualified for LSC-funded assistance.

Our Board has used its convening power to try to raise public awareness of this crisis, and we have also enlisted support from the organized bar, state Supreme Court chief justices, and the growing number of state access to justice commissions.

We have also empaneled two ad hoc committees — the Fiscal Oversight Task Force, which helped LSC revamp its management and accountability systems, and the Pro Bono Task Force which has already led to many initiatives, including the Pro Bono Innovation Fund, which is now in its second year, making important grants across the country.

Our Technology Initiative Grants and Tech Summit report continue to lead the way as we try to get some form of effective assistance to 100% of those who seek it.

And today we announce the creation of a new initiative — the LSC Leaders Council.

Comprised of leaders in the fields of law, business, academia, sports and other disciplines — many of whom are here with us today — the Leaders Council will also help raise awareness of LSC and its important work across the country.

And we are thrilled that former Bush White House counsel and Texas bar leader Harriet Miers and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, have agreed to co-chair the Council.

And in just a month, we will launch our Rural Summer Legal Corps, with 32 law students working at 28 LSC grantees in rural areas, and we are delighted that the funding for this program from many law firms is already sufficient to ensure that the program will continue another five years.

 And we have obtained foundation and other private support for important research, data collection, tool kits, and with a new very significant one to be announced (I think it leaked) later here, and other initiatives too numerous to name in the time we have today.

This kind of outreach is crucial if we are to increase funding for legal aid to narrow the justice gap and keep our justice system working smoothly.

No one expects a car to function well without changing the oil, rotating the tires and performing routine maintenance.

For some reason, we expect our justice system to operate smoothly without performing an even more basic function — putting enough gas in the tank.

We are not yet running on fumes, but the refill light on the dashboard has been red for far too long.

Our grantees across the country who are trying to assist and serve low-income Americans are being forced to turn away far too many of them with no assistance at all.

For these people, the tank is already empty.

We in this room know that this model is not sustainable and we must more adequately support civil legal aid if we are to remain true to the ideal of a right to equal access to justice, a right Vice President Biden said in this room three years ago, is "the single right that makes every other right viable."

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And speaking of our distinguished Vice President, it is now my honor to introduce our very special guest who throughout his remarkable and lengthy career of public service has been devoted to the cause of equal access to justice and whose own life and life’s work is an inspiration to us all, it is my great privilege and honor to introduce the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.