Opening Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Judicial Forum

Nashville, Tennessee
January 22, 2018

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

Let me also introduce the 9th Chair of LSC, Frank Strickland, who is here with us today from Atlanta and was appointed by President Bush.  Frank continues to serve on LSC’s Institutional Advancement Committee, and we are so grateful for that.

Thank you for joining us for this important Forum on a core American value — access to justice.

I want to thank the Tennessee Supreme Court for making this magnificent courtroom available to us, and we will be privileged to hear remarks from Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins in just a few minutes.

Your Senator Lamar Alexander, who also Chairs the Senate Help Committee and whose jurisdiction includes LSC, wishes he could be here today, but he and other senators have been a little busy and his schedule will not permit it.  In welcoming us to Tennessee, he sent a letter in which he noted the significance of our work:

“The work of the Legal Services Corporation in providing civil legal aid to low-income Americans is important and I appreciate your dedication to this worthy cause.”

Thank you, Senator Alexander — our work is indeed important.

In fact, 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.

A few weeks ago, I heard a great line that I have been repeating recently because I believe it powerfully applies here — “Democracy is like a farm; you reap what you sow.”

I am sure it is no secret to all of you, but we are not sowing enough when it comes to civil legal aid.

Unfortunately, today nearly 60 million Americans qualify for LSC-funded civil legal assistance because they are living at 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or below.

LSC funding in inflation adjusted dollars, however, is near an all-time low at the very time when the need is near an all-time high. Although Congress has maintained level funding at $385 million for the last two fiscal years, that figure is below the $420 million we received in fiscal year 2010, and significantly below our Board’s budget request of $527 million.

A few months ago, LSC released its new Justice Gap study conducted independently by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center at an event on Capitol Hill.  Among the study’s findings were that, in 2017, an estimated one million civil legal problems brought to LSC grantees by low-income Americans did not receive the legal assistance required to fully address their needs because of lack of available resources.

And, overall, low-income Americans received inadequate or no professional help for 86% of the civil legal problems they face in a given year.

Low-income seniors, for example, received inadequate or no professional help for 87% of their civil legal problems.  For low-income rural residents, the number was 86%, while for low-income veterans or other military personnel, the number was 88%.

I encourage you to take a look at the findings of this study, but what they all add up to is that, among the things we must do to make our country’s justice system more fairly accessible to low-income Americans (and it isn’t just about money but), we need to significantly increase LSC’s budget in order to properly fund legal assistance. 

Equal justice is not charity.  Rather, as Justice Louis Powell observed, “one of the guiding principles of our democracy.”

Our Board has been committed to do what it can to call attention to this guiding principle and the threat posed to it by the crisis in civil legal aid.

This program is part of a national dialogue on civil legal assistance that our LSC Board formally kicked off in Washington DC in April 2012.

We have held similar Forums at every LSC Board meeting since as we continue to try our best to call attention to the gravity of the crisis, and we will have Forums at each of our meetings for as long as we are serving.

We must also expand our reach and understanding of the ongoing crisis beyond the legal aid community to the greater legal profession, the business and philanthropic communities, and the general public.

That is why LSC formed its Leaders Council in 2015, pulling together leaders from many other disciplines in support of LSC.

Harriet Miers, former Bush White House Counsel, and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, serve as co-chairs and the 71 members and growing include public figures, such as former Major League Baseball player Henry "Hank" Aaron, author John Grisham, and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh; former Attorneys General Eric Holder and Dick Thornburgh and former Senator Bob Dole; Viacom Vice Chair Shari Redstone; and Microsoft Corporation President Brad Smith.

The LSC Board is also forming a Disaster Task Force composed of LSC grantees, business leaders from LSC’s Leaders’ Council, emergency management experts and other stakeholders to improve disaster relief coordination, comprehensiveness, and effectiveness nationwide.

Co-chaired by our Board members, Martha Minow and Father Pius, together with the recently retired Chief Judge of New York Jonathan Lippman, and generously supported by the Latham Watkins firm, this Task Force will, among other things, engage the business and emergency management communities to partner with legal aid providers to increase awareness about and develop a systematic approach to prepare for and respond to the legal needs of low-income Americans in disasters; and help to develop disaster expertise and preparedness in each LSC grantee program so that they can quickly respond if and when a disaster occurs.

An Opioid Task Force, co-chaired by LSC Board members Vic Maddox and Robert Grey, is also in the works.

It will be composed of LSC grantees, leaders from LSC’s Leaders’ Council, healthcare experts and other social services providers and stakeholders to educate government leaders and the public about the legal issues raised by the opioid crisis in areas such as healthcare, family law, domestic violence, child and elder abuse, and housing.

The task force will, among other things, highlight the critical role legal aid programs play in helping low-income people address these issues.

Just 12 days ago in New Orleans, I spoke at LSC’s Innovations in Technology Conference.  Formerly known as the TIG Conference (and it will always be TIG for me), named for the LSC’s Technology Initiative Grant program, this remarkable program has helped drive significant innovation in legal technology for nearly two decades, awarding 708 competitive grants, for a total of more than 63 million dollars.  We heard about two of those grants this morning that were made here in Tennessee, and one made this year to West Tennessee Legal Services to enhance Tennessee’s statewide online portal by developing and implementing an artificial intelligence driven chatbot.  The project will include analyzing and updating website content to improve usability, plain language, and search engine optimization.

The incredible innovation on display at this year’s TIG conference illustrates what can happen when we reach beyond the legal aid community for new partners, ideas and vision.

That is what animates the Leaders Council, the task forces, these Forums, and so much of our outreach.

The justice system belongs to each and every one of us, not just the lawyers, and we all have a stake in its fairness and orderly functioning.

That is why providing civil legal aid is not charity — it is a civic duty that preserves and advances a foundational value of our country. 

It is my hope that together we will put our country on a path to completely closing the Justice Gap by our nation’s 250th birthday in 2026.  Thank you very much.