Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Minor Wisdom Award Luncheon

ABA Section of Litigation | John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award
May 2, 2019

On May 2, LSC Board Chair John G. Levi was recognized with the ABA's John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award. The award--named in honor of Judge John Minor Wisdom, a scholar and jurist on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit--recognizes those who have made outstanding contributions to the quality of justice in their communities, ensuring that the legal system is open and available to all.

Read Chair Levi's remarks below:

LSC Chair John G. Levi
Remarks for John Minor Wisdom Award Luncheon
New York, Thursday, May 2, 2019

Thank you so much, Ken, and thank you to Gene Vance and the ABA’s Section of Litigation for this extraordinary recognition.

Ken, you are an inspiration and such a remarkable Co-Chair of LSC’s Leaders Council.

When I received your letter, Gene, a few weeks ago, frankly, I had to read it a couple of times for it to sink in.

I have a number of thank you’s to give today.

The first is to Judge John Minor Wisdom, one of the heroes of the legal profession, for what he did in his time to help our country open the schoolhouse doors and remind us that our Constitution is color blind.

And I have to thank my family and my wife Jill and, of course, my wonderful law firm, Sidley Austin (leaders of which are here today) for enthusiastically supporting me in my role as LSC Chair.

And thank you to my terrific colleagues who currently serve or have served on the Board of LSC or who serve or have served as a part of LSC’s tremendous leadership team, a number of whom are also here with us today for everything they have done and continue to do to help LSC.

In accepting this award, I do so really on behalf of the 5,300 lawyers, the 1,750 paralegals, and the many others who go to work every day at LSC’s 132 grantees across the country and who work so hard and well to uphold our country’s commitment to equal justice, with pay that is far too low, while having to turn away far too many people.

I stand on their shoulders and on the shoulders of many of you in this room, who have contributed so much for so long trying to make our civil justice system more fairly accessible to our country’s low-income population.

In recognizing me, you recognize them.

Thank you to the ABA, Bob Carlson and his predecessors, who throughout my service as Chair of the LSC Board, have been what I have referred to as indispensable allies, and who have stepped up to the plate time and again on behalf of LSC and our grantees.

This year was no exception, as on ABA Day just a few weeks ago, Bob led 50 states of delegations that came down to Washington to meet with the entire Congress in support of LSC’s budget request.

I have one more significant thank you to give, and that is to my Dad, who instilled in his family a zeal for ensuring that the justice system worked for everyone, founded the first civil legal aid clinic in a major U.S. law school when he was University of Chicago Law Dean in the 1950s, and so aptly observed in his farewell address as the nation’s Attorney General in January 1977 that . . . “the values on which this country is founded can never be won for all time; they must always be won anew.”

And as we are in New York City, it is appropriate to recall the words of another great jurist, Learned Hand, who at the 75th anniversary of New York’s Legal Aid Society in 1951 as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and many of you here could probably join me in reciting his profound words, said:

"If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment,” he said.  “Thou shalt not ration justice."

But, folks, unfortunately, rationing justice appears to be what we’re doing!

Today nearly 59 million Americans qualify for LSC-funded civil legal assistance because they are living at 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or below.

LSC’s latest study of the Justice Gap, released in 2017, found that an estimated one million civil legal problems brought to LSC grantees by low-income Americans in 2017 did not receive the legal assistance required to fully address their needs because of a lack of available resources.

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

And we continue to hear from the National Center for State Courts that, in almost 75 percent of civil cases in state courts, one or both parties are unrepresented, and as our Board has visited so many states during its tenure, we have heard from Chief Justices, judges, state officials, and program leaders in state after state, that low-income individuals in matters of enormous consequence for them and their families, from housing to domestic violence, are unfortunately on their own without representation.

Based on national statistics, for every approximately 10,000 client-eligible individuals, there is only one legal aid lawyer available to serve their civil legal needs.  It is no wonder then that our grantees are forced to turn away so many people for lack of resources.

Although Congress increased LSC’s funding for fiscal year 2019 to $415 million, that figure is significantly below what is needed, even below the $420 million actually appropriated by Congress in 2010.

In fact, even if Congress met LSC’s fiscal year 2020 budget request for $593 million, funding in inflation adjusted dollars, it would still be less than it was during many years of the Reagan Administration.

Folks, this is happening on our watch.  Leaving this many people out to fend for themselves seriously erodes confidence in the fairness of our justice system and jeopardizes the rule of law.

I am pretty sure that most everyone in this room knows that yesterday was Law Day.  First established in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who, in so doing, called on all Americans to “vigilantly guard the great heritage of liberty, justice and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed to us.”

Isn’t it time that, as we approach the country’s 250th birthday in 2026, we keep faith with John Minor Wisdom, Learned Hand, and our country’s founders, and make a significant dent in this justice gap!

We owe it to future generations of Americans to redouble our efforts to make sure that our justice system lives up to its promise.

Thank you for giving me this very special award.