Opening Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | LSC Board of Directors Meeting | July 2016

Burlington, Vermont | July 2016
July 18, 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 discussions of an enduring and fundamental American — and, I should add, Canadian value — equal access to justice.

It is fitting that we gather here in Vermont, which has provided important leadership on access to justice issues at both the state and national levels.    

We will be privileged this morning to hear remarks from two of these distinguished leaders — Governor Peter Shumlin and Congressman Peter Welch.

We are so honored that they could join us.

This morning’s program features two panel discussions.

In the first, distinguished New England jurists will explore the importance of access to justice to the judiciary in a discussion moderated by LSC’s remarkable General Counsel Ron Flagg.

The second panel looks north with a discussion of access to justice issues in Canada with leading members of the Canadian legal community.  Lisa Foster, the phenomenal director of the U.S. Justice Department’s office for Access to Justice, will moderate.

Following the panels, I have asked Lisa to update us during lunch about the many important initiatives her office at the Justice Department is undertaking, a briefing we hope will become an annual event.

I earlier referred to equal access to justice as an ENDURING value, but some may now be wondering just how enduring it will prove to be.

Everyone here probably knows the challenges confronting LSC and others trying to ensure access to justice, 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 6 million to 62.5 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.

When our LSC Board came into office, we saw that — while the legal aid community was doing a great job of talking to itself — we needed to do a much better job of educating the greater legal community and the public at large about this crisis and what it means for the future of our democracy.  We still do.

This is not an issue that we can leave only to the lawyers, and the crisis in access to our justice system for low-income Americans should be everyone’s concern.

So our LSC Board has attempted in its time in office to elevate the public awareness of this crisis, formally kicked off a national dialogue at a forum we co-hosted at the White House in April of 2012.

We have held similar forums at every LSC Board meeting around the country since, including this one, and have returned annually to the White House four times as we continue to call attention to the crisis.

We intend to hold such forums around the country and at the White House for as long as we remain in office.

Many of these forums have included leaders from business, government, philanthropy as well as the greater legal community.

This broader focus also continues with LSC’s recently announced initiative — the LSC Leaders Council.

Comprised of leaders in the fields of law, business, academia, sports and other disciplines, the Leaders Council will also help raise awareness of LSC and its important work across the country.

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 just a few weeks ago, we launched our Rural Summer Legal Corps, with 30 law students working at LSC grantees in rural areas across the country, and we are delighted that the funding for this program from many law firms is already sufficient to ensure that the program will continue for five summers.

Among this year’s fellows is Aisatou (Ice-Ah-Too) Diallo, a Vermont Law School student who is working on housing issues at the Plattsburgh office of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York. Lillian Moy, the Executive Director of that program, is here with us today.

And Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine, whose Executive Director Nan Heald is also with us today, is hosting Rachel Given, a Florida International University College of Law student who is working on the Rural Third Party Debt Relief Project which targets credit card/third party debt collection abuses. 

LSC has also obtained foundation and other private support for additional important initiatives, including the development of online, statewide “legal portals” to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate assistance, the preparation of a new 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; and an evaluation of statewide and territory-wide legal aid websites, which vary widely in terms of quantity and quality of information.

Our government supports many important societal initiatives, but none is more important to the preservation of democracy itself than access to justice, which underlies in my view the most essential girder in the foundation of democracy — the rule of law.

As Sargent Shriver, who paved the way for LSC as founder and director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Johnson administration, so eloquently put it:

“The extension of legal services to the poor is only a means of a more universal end — the establishment of the rule of law. It is that ordered quest for dignity, for justice, and for opportunity which is the central concern of society today.”

We must all do what we can to ensure that this ordered quest for dignity, justice and opportunity continues to play a major role in shaping the American experience.

Your LSC Board is committed in the remaining year and half it is in office to playing its part in that quest.

One man who devoted much of his life to that quest, Ab Mikva, the father of LSC Board member Laurie Mikva, passed away a couple of weeks ago in his 90th year.

He was a prime mover in creating LSC and spent much of his long public career helping to secure its future.

We will greatly miss his wisdom and voice.

It is now my honor and privilege to introduce Peter Welch, who has served as Vermont’s Congressman since 2007.

Congressman Welch graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, and as one of the country’s first Robert F. Kennedy Fellows, fought housing discrimination in my hometown, Chicago, and went on to earn a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

 He settled in Vermont’s Upper Valley and worked as a public defender before founding a law practice and serving in the Vermont Senate.

Congressman Welch is a Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. 

Congressman Welch has been a strong backer of LSC since arriving on Capitol Hill, and is a member of the recently formed House Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus.

It is my pleasure to present Vermont’s Congressman Peter Welch.

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