Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Legal Aid Chicago Luncheon

June 20, 2019

On June 20, LSC Board Chair John G. Levi was recognized by the newly renamed Legal Aid Chicago with the Champion of Justice Award. Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker presented the award and thanked Levi for his efforts on behalf of expanding access to justice. 

Read Chair Levi's remarks below:

 

Prepared Remarks by
Legal Services Corporation Board Chairman John G. Levi
Legal Aid Chicago Annual Award Luncheon
Chicago, Illinois, June 20, 2019

 

 

Thank you all for joining us today, and thank you Governor Pritzker.

Receiving this award is such a wonderful honor, and having you present it to me in the middle of such a compelling and busy period for you makes it all the more special.

I very much appreciate your kind words about me and LSC and your continued support for legal aid, which you also demonstrated late last year as Governor-elect when you spoke at the University of Chicago Law School at LSC’s first annual Veterans Day Forum.

Thank you for your very important service to our State.

I am so grateful to John Gallo and the outstanding Board and staff at Legal Aid Chicago for this special recognition.

As some of you know, John was a partner at Sidley for more than 20 years, and I still remember the mixed feelings I had that day a couple of years ago when he told me he was considering becoming the Executive Director of Legal Aid Chicago.

John had held numerous leadership positions at Sidley and it would be a big loss, but I quickly put that aside and encouraged him to go for it!  And now here he is at the helm of one of LSC’s most robust grantees, which for over 50 years has provided free, comprehensive civil legal services to the most vulnerable people living in Cook County.  Thank you so much, John!

With more than 100 full-time attorneys and staff, Legal Aid Chicago impacts the lives of more than 30,000 low-income residents of our community every year, helping them in matters central to their well-being.

Special thanks, of course, to my wife Jill and my family for their love and encouragement and for putting up with me throughout.

And thank you to my extraordinary firm.  You have gone above and beyond in your generous support of me in this role and LSC and legal aid, from backing LSC’s Opioid Task Force to showing up in force here today.  Thank you for the bottom of my heart.

I also want to acknowledge the influence that two of our City’s most distinguished citizens have had in shaping my career — and my life.

One of them is here with us today — Newton Minow.  How lucky for me that he has been my mentor and colleague at Sidley since the mid-1970’s and my role model of the consummate lawyer-public citizen, whose wisdom, advice, and judgment I have been able to benefit so greatly from throughout my own career.

And Ab Mikva, who my Dad used to tell me was one of the very best students he ever had at the UC Law School.  As luck would have it, early in my career, I was actually on a case with Ab during a very brief break in his public service, when he was in private practice, and Ab continued to take an interest in my career and offered wonderful guidance and support to me as I assumed the LSC Chair role.

Funny thing, their daughters serve with me on the LSC Board — Martha Minow, former Dean of the Harvard Law School and Laurie Mikva, a long-time Assistant Clinical Professor at Northwestern Law School.  Laurie is here with us today.

And thank you to my other terrific colleagues who serve on the Board of LSC as well as those who are a part of LSC’s tremendous leadership team and staff for everything they have done and continue to do to help LSC under the leadership of LSC’s longest-serving and outstanding President, Jim Sandman, here with us today and he is also joined by LSC’s terrific General Counsel, Ron Flagg.

I have one more significant thank you to give, and that is to my Dad, Edward Levi, 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 where he encouraged me to work the summer after my first year of law school.  That summer has stayed with me throughout my career.

In accepting this award, I do so really on behalf of the 100 plus attorneys and staff at Legal Aid Chicago and the 10,009 lawyers and full-time staff who go to work every day at LSC’s 132 grantees across the country.  Jim Sandman calls them the heroes of our profession as they work for pay that is far too low, while having a caseload that is far too high, trying to uphold our country’s commitment to equal justice.

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 the National Center for State Courts reports that, in almost 75 percent of civil cases in state courts, one or both parties are unrepresented.

As our LSC Board has visited over half of the states during its tenure, we have heard repeatedly from Chief Justices, judges, state officials, and grantees 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, there is only one legal aid lawyer available for every approximately 10,000 client-eligible individuals to serve their civil legal needs.  It should be no surprise then that our grantees are forced to turn away so many people for lack of resources.

Although Congress actually 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 and 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 only 12 percent of a then smaller population qualified for LSC-funded assistance.

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

But, folks, this crisis in access to justice for low-income Americans 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 ultimately, in my view, jeopardizes the rule of law.  Equal justice is not charity.  We have to do better and soon!

If you are not engaged in pro bono service or supporting legal aid, please do. We need you, and it is really part and parcel of being a lawyer.  Last year, 68,013 cases were handled by pro bono attorneys for LSC’s grantees across the country.  But clearly we need many more.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has observed:

“Lawyers have a license to practice law, a monopoly on certain services.  But for that privilege and status, lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services to those without the wherewithal to pay, to respond to needs outside themselves, to help repair tears in their communities.”

Without civil legal aid—and pro bono service from the Bar—the American ideal of justice is threatened.

And as Justice Ginsburg’s good friend—and ideological opposite—Antonin Scalia so eloquently put it at LSC’s 40th Anniversary five years ago:

“The American ideal is not for some justice, it is as the Pledge of Allegiance says, ‘liberty and justice for all,’ or as the Supreme Court pediment has it, ‘equal justice.’  I’ve always thought that’s somewhat redundant.  Can there be justice if it is not equal?  Can there be a just society when some do not have justice?  Equality, equal treatment, is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice.”

Every day, legal aid attorneys across our nation can be counted on to pursue this ideal with enormous dedication and little fanfare.

I regard this honor today to be their moment in the limelight as much as it is mine and so I accept it on their behalf.  Thank you.