Equal Justice Conference Remarks by John G. Levi

LSC Board Chair at EJC in Chicago, Illinois
May 12, 2016

Good morning.

Thank you, Steve, for that gracious introduction.

It has been my great privilege these past six years to serve as the 10th Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation.

As a member of the host committee and a life-long resident of this city, it is my pleasure to join others in welcoming you to Chicago.

In a few minutes, you will be privileged to hear from one of our city’s most distinguished citizens — Newton Minow.

As you can see in your program, another of the city’s leading lights, Ab Mikva, was supposed to be here today but, unfortunately, he is at home recovering from a virus.

Newt and Ab, by the way, were born three days apart in a Milwaukee hospital and have followed paths that have taken them to clerkships with Supreme Court justices, outstanding law practices, amazing public service careers, and lifelong friends.

Newt Minow has been my mentor for my entire professional career.  How lucky for me that he recruited me to Sidley Austin in the 1970s and has been my role model ever since.

Newt is currently senior counsel at Sidley’s Chicago office, after having been a partner of the firm for more than 25 years, beginning in 1965.

Early in his career, Newt served as Assistant Counsel to then Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and worked in his presidential campaigns.  In 1961, President Kennedy appointed him Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, where he famously described American television as a “vast wasteland.”

Newt co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 presidential debates and currently serves as a board member of the Presidential Debates Commission. He has served on many other presidential commissions and chaired a special advisory committee to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on protecting civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

He has been Chairman of the Board at Rand Corporation and served on many other boards, including CBS, Tribune Company, Sara Lee, Northwestern University and Notre Dame.

Newt has received 14 honorary degrees and numerous other awards, including the Peabody Award and the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service.

Newt — and Ab too — are linked to LSC through their daughters — Martha Minow, Dean of the Harvard Law School, serves as Vice Chair of LSC, and Laurie Mikva, who teaches in the Bluhm Clinic at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, is a member of our LSC Board.

As I look out at this remarkable group assembled here today, I see many folks engaged in the same task as LSC and its grantees — ensuring equal access to justice for all Americans, regardless of their economic means.

And everyone here knows the challenges confronting that mission, chief among them, woefully inadequate resources.

Since our LSC board prepared to take office more than six years ago, the number of people eligible for LSC-funded assistance has risen by more than 5 million to 61 million in 2015. And if you add the 30 million more who qualified last year because they lived for two months or more at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline, you begin to approach nearly thirty percent 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, 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.

As LSC grantees are forced to turn away droves of those seeking assistance because of scarce resources, our nation’s courts are flooded with millions of self-represented litigants.

At the same time, we also know that public defender offices are underfunded and understaffed, and in some cases, can devote only a few minutes to each client — if that.

As I pointed out at LSC’s recent White House Forum, no one expects a car to function well without performing routine maintenance.

Yet for some reason, we expect our country’s justice system to operate properly 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.

And while all of us in this room see that refill light flickering, not many beyond the legal aid and defender community do.

Together we must throw open the doors and windows, and educate the greater legal community and the public at large about this crisis and what I believe it means for the rule of law and the future of our democracy.

Too frequently, we as lawyers seem to think that if it’s the justice system, then that is our turf, and others may think that way too, but we cannot afford to leave others out, because it is their, all of our, justice system that is at stake.

We cannot continue to go down the road of jeopardizing our justice system, the envy of the world, by chronically underfunding legal aid and defense.

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.

As the now very popular Alexander Hamilton powerfully observed in the Federalist Papers: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.  It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

Or, as another distinguished Chicagoan, Ab Mikva’s law professor and my father — Edward Levi — put it in his farewell address as he ended his service as Attorney General of the United States in 1977, the values on which our country is founded “can never be won for all time — they must always be won anew.”

Everyone in this room understands that and each day works to renew and advance the cause of equal access to justice.

Thank you for all that you do on behalf of all of us. Welcome to Chicago!

It is now my pleasure to introduce the leader of our discussion with Newt Minow, my friend, Judge Lora Livingston, who has served as the presiding judge of the 261st District Court in Travis County, Texas since 1999.

Judge Livingston is the outstanding Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, and she has served on many important boards, including the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, Texas Access to Justice Commission, the National Center on Women and Family Law, and the National Association of IOLTA Programs.

A graduate of the UCLA Law School, Lora began her distinguished legal career as a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellow assigned to the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas.

Her commitment to access to justice inspires us all.

It is my honor to introduce Judge Lora Livingston.