Opening Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Board of Directors Meeting
I am John Levi and it is my distinct privilege to serve as the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation.
Thank you for joining us for this important Forum on a core American value — access to justice.
We are happy to be here at the Idaho State Capitol and to have use of this magnificent facility.
We are also grateful that three leaders of the Idaho legal community will be speaking this morning — Chief Justice Roger Burdick of the Idaho Supreme Court, Dean Elena Langan of Concordia University School of Law, and James Ruchti, the President of the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association.
Today’s program also includes two panels.
The first focuses on meeting the civil legal needs of low-income veterans and features leaders from the veterans and civil legal aid communities here in Idaho.
LSC’s outstanding President Jim Sandman will moderate.
The second panel examines the role of corporate counsel in expanding access to justice.
It brings together leaders from some of the most prominent companies in the country and will be moderated by LSC Board member and former ABA President, Robert Grey.
We gather today as LSC has established two new task forces, launched at our last Board meeting in April in Washington, and each of which has met during the past few weeks.
Comprised of 27 leaders from the legal and medical communities, federal and state government, and veterans and social services organizations, our Opioid Task Force will, among other things, highlight the critical role legal aid programs are playing in conjunction with other service providers in helping people address those issues and identify innovative and best practices to meet these challenges.
Two of the three Co-Chairs of this Task Force are with us today — the afore-mentioned Robert Grey, and another remarkable Board member, Vic Maddox of Louisville’s Fultz Maddox Dickens.
The third Co-Chair is the equally remarkable David Hoffman, a Sidley Austin partner and non-director member of LSC’s Audit Committee.
David’s and my firm, Sidley Austin, is supporting this Task Force.
The second initiative — LSC’s Disaster Task Force — includes 61 leaders from the legal and medical communities, federal and state government, and veterans and social services organizations.
In partnership with business and emergency management communities and legal aid providers, it will develop a systematic approach to preparing for and responding to the legal needs of low-income Americans who have experienced a disaster.
Two of the Co-Chairs of this Task Force have been with us here in Idaho — outstanding LSC Board member Father Pius Pietrzyk.
He is joined by LSC’s terrific Vice Chair and immediate past Dean and Harvard’s 300th University Professor, Martha Minow, and the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the invaluable Jonathan Lippman, now Of Counsel at Latham & Watkins.
We are so grateful that Latham & Watkins is providing support for this effort.
The Opioid Task Force will convene working groups and hold hearings in Indianapolis on October 17th and in Kentucky on February 13th.
The Disaster Task Force has also created working groups and will hold hearings in Houston on December 4th and in Miami on March 15th.
Along with these new initiatives, LSC continues its leadership in many other areas.
Last night, we discussed our efforts in promoting pro bono service.
Another area where LSC has provided leadership is technology, primarily through our Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program.
Since its founding, TIG has funded more than 700 projects across the country, totaling more than $61 million.
Idaho Legal Aid Services made good use of a quarter-million-dollar grant it received in 2016, partnering with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction and the Illinois Tech Chicago-Kent College of Law to improve A2J Guided Interviews for the legal aid community.
These interviews take complex legal information and present it in a straightforward way to self-represented litigants.
This project ensured that more than 1,000 A2J Guided Interviews currently available to the legal aid community is easy to use, accurate, and up to date.
With a second, $80,000 grant, Idaho Legal Aid Services worked to make Idaho’s legal aid websites easier to share and find important information about legal resources, increased legal aid organizations’ online presence, and helped direct more users to relevant information.
In addition to these initiatives, our Board has also 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, in fact, 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.
LSC’s Leaders Council, formed just a few years ago and still growing, pulls together leaders from many other disciplines in support of LSC, and it is playing a significant role in helping to raise awareness of LSC and its grantees’ essential work.
Harriet Miers, former Bush White House Counsel, and Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck, serve as Co-Chairs and the 92 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; and Microsoft Corporation President Brad Smith. Here this morning, we are joined by David Zapolsky, Amazon’s Senior VP, GC and Corporate Secretary, who joined the Council last year.
Despite these and other initiatives by LSC, and efforts by others in the legal aid community, America is still struggling with an enormous justice gap — the shortfall between the legal needs of low-income Americans and the legal services available to them.
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 increased LSC’s funding for 2018 to $410 million, that figure is significantly below what is needed, well below the $420 million appropriated by Congress in 2010.
LSC’s latest study of the Justice Gap, released last year, found 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.
This is nothing short of appalling.
We must significantly increase LSC’s budget in order to properly fund legal assistance and pay for what it takes to make our justice system accessible to all Americans.
This is not some sort of government handout. It is not a matter of charity, because equal justice is not charity.
It is, as Justice Lewis Powell observed, “one of the guiding principles of our democracy.”
Fully funding civil legal aid across this country is an investment in the stability of American democracy.
As Donald Rumsfeld observed nearly 50 years ago while testifying before Congress as the first Republican Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity: “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.”
We must all do our part to preserve this core value of equal access to justice.
Future generations of Americans are counting on us all.