Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Forum on Increasing Access to Justice

Washington, D.C.
May 3, 2017

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us today for our 6th annual LSC Forum on increasing access to justice.

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

I particularly want to thank our host Dean William Treanor  and the Georgetown University Law Center for providing us this wonderful facility for these discussions on the crisis that exists in access to our civil justice system for low-income Americans. 

We will be privileged to hear shortly from Representatives Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who spoke so eloquently to our Board two years ago, and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, co-founder of the bipartisan House Access to Civil Legal Services Caucus.

ABA President Linda Klein, who has also been doing everything possible to defend LSC’s funding, will provide closing remarks.

Before we begin our program, I want to recognize the Honorable Donald Rumsfeld, who, but for a lousy cold, would be here with us today, played such a significant role in the founding of LSC during the Nixon Administration.

In 1969, as the first Republican director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Don saved the Legal Services Program, clearing the way for the formation of LSC five years later.

Testifying to Congress at that time on behalf of the program, Don powerfully observed:

“We cannot expect respect for the rule of law if we, as public officials, do not assure access to the legal process.  To fail to do so would break faith with those Americans — rich and poor alike — who have confidence in our legal institutions and the notion that disputes are better resolved in courtrooms than on street corners.”

I know that we wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments Don so eloquently expressed nearly 50 years ago.  We inherit his vision. 

In addition to our distinguished speakers, we have some extraordinary panels this afternoon.

The first consists of general counsel and business leaders who will discuss access to justice issues from the perspective of the business community.  Home Depot’s outstanding Vice President and General Counsel Teresa Wynn Roseborough will moderate the discussion.

The second focuses on the importance of access to justice to the judiciary and features distinguished state Supreme Court chief justices and a Federal Court of Appeals judge.  LSC’s remarkable Vice Chair and Dean of Harvard Law School Martha Minow will moderate the panel. 

Our concluding panel will address the legal needs of low-income veterans through medical legal partnerships.  LSC’s very own longest-serving President, Jim Sandman, will moderate.

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This is the first time we have gathered in DC since the White House’s budget proposal called for LSC’s defunding.  But LSC has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress since it was created during the Nixon Administration, and as we actually receive our funding directly from Congress, we expect that support to continue.

Our mission to expand access to justice remains as clear and urgent as ever, because it embodies a core American value that should be — must be — impervious to bipartisan swings. 

We are particularly grateful that at least 150 House members, including 13 Republicans, have already written letters in support of LSC funding in FY 2018.

We have also been heartened by the support from across the legal spectrum:

The State Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators, in a letter to OMB, not only opposed defunding LSC but called for increased funding.

More than 160 law school deans and nearly 200 corporate attorneys from some of America’s leading companies wrote to congressional leaders along similar lines.

The heads of over 150 law firms likewise warned that eliminating LSC funding would undermine their pro bono efforts since private lawyers partner with LSC-funded legal aid groups to provide such representation.

And there have been numerous op-eds expressing support all across the country.

These expressions are gratifying, but we must not allow this debate about eliminating LSC to alter our definition of success.  Merely surviving elimination is not a victory for us.  Robust funding must continue, and increased funding is what we seek, and on the behalf of future generations, must have.

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 is below the $400 million appropriated in the mid 90’s.

The current appropriation is 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 12 percent of the country qualified for assistance. Today, sadly, that number is 20 percent of a larger population.

LSC funding is little more than a rounding error in the federal budget, less than 1/10,000th of federal spending.

At this wholly inadequate level of funding, our grantees are being forced to turn away droves of eligible low-income Americans who believe they have a legal need, and our courts are forced to absorb huge and increasing numbers of self-represented litigants.

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Ladies and gentlemen:

This is happening on our watch.  In a few weeks, a new justice gap study will come out.  I have no doubt what it will demonstrate:  a widening — rather than a narrowing— justice gap. 

LSC was founded with the recognition that equal access to justice is not only a core American value — it is essential to maintaining our democracy and the rule of law. 

We need to continue to educate our citizens on the significance of this crisis and it can no longer just be the province of the lawyers.

When asked why he become so deeply involved in access to justice issues, football coach and LSC Leaders Council member Jim Harbaugh explained in a recent interview:

“Some people say, ‘Why is a football coach concerned?’ I explained I’m an American first and all Americans should care about justice. The idea, as you learn about our legal system, is the danger of not being able to have access to justice. From what I can see, it’s that, if you have money you have access to justice. If you don’t, it’s becoming increasingly less and less access for low-income Americans and that’s the crux of it.”

And so, it is our responsibility — all Americans’ responsibility — to rededicate ourselves to making our system of justice accessible to everyone irrespective of their economic means. 

When my father, Edward Levi, ended his service as Attorney General of the United States in 1977, he reminded us in his farewell address to the Department of Justice that the values on which our country is founded “can never be won for all time — they must always be won anew.”

At this crucial juncture, we must all do all that we can do to win this value once again and ensure that equal access to justice is available to all Americans.

Thank you.

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Now, it is my pleasure to introduce Congressman Tom Emmer.

Congressman Emmer has represented Minnesota’s 6th District since 2015. He currently serves on the House Committee on Financial Services.

The Congressman served as a prominent radio host on the popular Twin Cities News Talk AM1130. He was elected in 2004 to the Minnesota House of Representatives and was reelected for another two terms in 2006 and 2008.

Prior to that, he was in private practice for two decades, eventually opening his own law firm, Emmer Law, in 2005.

Congressman Emmer holds a B.A. in History and Political Science from the University of Alaska and a J.D. from the William Mitchell College of Law.

Congressman, we know how busy you are, and we thank you so much for joining us for this important Forum.