Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | House of Delegates

ABA Annual Meeting, New York City
August 15, 2017

Good morning.  Thank you, Madam Chair, for giving me the honor of speaking to the ABA’s House of Delegates.

I want to thank ABA President Linda Klein for being such an extraordinary partner with the Legal Services Corporation.

As LSC faced a threat of defunding, Linda Klein has been such a steadfast friend, appearing at so many LSC events, speaking across the country, writing op-eds in defense of LSC, championing the ABA’s growing Legal Aid Defender Campaign, and creating the terrific “It’s Only Fair” event.

In the past, I have called the ABA LSC’s “indispensable ally” and that has never been so true as it was this year with Linda at the helm.

I join you in welcoming Hilarie Bass as she assumes the ABA Presidency.  Hilarie, we look forward to working closely with you.

This may — or may not — be my last appearance at this Annual Meeting as LSC Chair — the Trump Administration has not yet moved to appoint a new LSC Board, and Washington processes are slow, so we may well be around for some time.

It has been such a privilege to serve as the 10th Chair of the Legal Services Corporation these past seven years.  Ladies and gentlemen of the House — I have no intention of being the last!

LSC released a new Justice Gap Report a few weeks ago, as many of you know, and we hope that this important study will help shape the national discussion regarding the accessibility of our civil justice system.

Among its many eye-opening findings:

  • 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help.
  • 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the past year.
  • In 2017, low-income Americans will seek legal aid from LSC-funded organizations for an estimated 1.7 million problems.  They will receive only limited or no help for more than half of those problems because of scarce resources.

The bottom line of this Report is:  far too many of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens are being left out and denied access to our civil justice system.

Ladies and gentlemen:  This is happening on our watch.  We can wring our hands or we can get serious and redouble, even triple, our efforts to end this justice gap.

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

To do something about it, we and you, the leaders of the legal profession, have to ask ourselves some hard questions.

Why does our society take our justice system so lightly?

Why has the third, co-equal branch of government not really been co-equal in terms of staffing and money during the past few decades?

Why has it become so difficult for us to devote the resources to make sure our justice system is what we say it is?

I think much of it is a lack of education and information.

As Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht observed at LSC’s 40th anniversary in 2014:

“We hope that justice has few enemies.  Most of what we struggle with, I don’t think is opposition to justice, but ignorance of what is going on.”

So, throughout our tenure, our LSC Board has tried to play its part in addressing this ignorance.

We formally kicked off a national dialogue about the crisis in civil legal aid at a White House Forum in 2012.  Since then, we have held similar Forums at every LSC quarterly meeting around the country.  We have returned annually to the White House, regularly briefed Congress, held receptions at the Supreme Court and elsewhere in DC to call attention to the crisis.  And because we must expand our reach and understanding of the crisis beyond the legal aid community, both in and outside of our profession, we created an LSC Leaders Council, pulling together leaders from law and many other disciplines in support of LSC.

The remarkable co-chairs of this Leaders Council, Harriet Miers, former Bush White House Counsel, and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, both spoke so eloquently in connection with the release of our Justice Gap Report here this past Friday and in June on Capitol Hill – where they were joined by one of the most active Council members — University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh summed up the crisis in civil legal aid with a compelling football analogy:

“It’s fairness on a football team that is probably the thing we strive towards the most.  You may not treat everybody exactly the same, but you want to be fair to everybody on the team.  It would be like only giving 20 percent of the team helmets, the rest of the team doesn’t get a helmet, you don’t get protection. Run out there and play in the game without a helmet and we’ll see what happens. . . .”  Jim continued:  “That’s why this new report is so important.  It shows the details of the many legal challenges that confront low-income Americans and how hard it is for them to get legal assistance.”

Well, it is time for all of us in this room to put on our helmets and get into the game.

We lawyers know that funding is woefully inadequate to provide equal access to justice, and we understand the consequences of what Kentucky Chief Justice and outgoing President of the National Conference of Chief Justices, John Minton called a “pro se tsunami hitting the nations’ courts.”

Grateful as we are that in the face of the new Administration’s 2018 budget proposal to defund LSC completely, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted just a few weeks ago to maintain our funding at the current level of $385 million — but our actual budget request was $527 million.  Even that falls far short of the funds necessary to significantly narrow the justice gap or meet the goal I posited last year of closing it completely by our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026.

If we — lawyers, officers of the court — do not speak up in defense of the accessibility and orderly functioning of our civil justice system, who will?

One person who speaks up is your President Linda Klein — just days ago, she observed:

“Lawyers in the trenches know that legal help can give hope and that it solves problems so that people can return to their normal productive lives.  The vast majority of that hope and that help comes through the Legal Services Corporation and the Legal Aid Agencies it funds.  Without LSC, courthouse doors all over the country will slam in the faces of millions of Americans and our communities cannot bear that loss.”

I hope that, as the nation’s leading lawyers, you will embrace your special responsibility and that you will use your voices to speak up when your country’s justice system needs you, as it does now.  What we and you do today will help to shape the accessibility of our civil justice system for generations of Americans to come.  They are counting on us!

So together let us resolve that in our time, in our time, we will do what must be done to end our nation’s appalling justice gap once and for all!  Thank you.