Welcoming Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Access to Justice Forum

Virtual Forum - Feb. 4, 2021
February 8, 2021

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

On behalf of my wonderful colleagues on the LSC Board, I want to welcome you to this important virtual briefing on the way the COVID pandemic is affecting the delivery of legal services and access to justice across the country.

We are especially privileged this morning to hear from the new co-chairs of the House Access to Legal Aid Caucus, Pennsylvania representatives Mary Gay Scanlon, a former legal aid lawyer, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a longtime supporter of LSC who spoke so powerfully in Washington at the release of our Opioid Task Force report in 2019. They will be joined by the new Vice-Chair of the Caucus, Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer, who has delivered stirring remarks at LSC Forums on Access to Justice both in Minneapolis and in Washington.

As this Forum was to have taken place in Las Vegas as a part of our Board’s pre-pandemic, planned visit to Nevada, we will also be honored to hear remarks from Dean Daniel W. Hamilton, University of Nevada Las Vegas Law School, and Brad Lewis, Director, Nevada Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. 

Our forum today also features two panels and a conversation. The first panel, moderated by Ron Flagg, examines the effect the pandemic is having on state courts. The panel brings together four distinguished current or former Chief Justices of state Supreme Courts, including the President of the National Conference of Chief Justices. 

On the second panel, remarkable leaders from four LSC grantees will discuss the impact that COVID-19 is having on their programs and the client community. LSC Vice President Lynn Jennings will moderate that discussion.

Following that panel, LSC’s terrific Vice Chair Father Pius Pietrzyk will lead a conversation about technological innovations courts have made to address the challenges of the pandemic.  

LSC President Ron Flagg will deliver closing remarks.

As we all know, the pandemic shut down much of our society beginning last spring, but the conflicts our courts are asked to resolve did not stop and the unmet legal needs of low-income Americans served by our grantees only escalated.

Our courts have been forced to reinvent the way justice is administered just as our grantees have had to find new ways to deliver legal services.

 We look forward to hearing more about these significant efforts today, and I briefly want to mention how LSC is doing its best to respond to the same challenges. Since the pandemic began, in order to increase public awareness about what was happening to our grantees and our country’s significant low-income population, as it attempted to deal with a whole host of legal issues, LSC has hosted eight, widely-attended, compelling virtual events to highlight a variety of issues, including the impact of COVID-19 on grantee services, domestic violence, evictions, and rural communities. Two of these events were virtual field hearings for LSC’s Veterans Task Force, which continued its vital work, uninterrupted, throughout the year and is now preparing its final report.

Two other LSC task forces, one focused on housing and the other on rural issues, are launching now. 

In fact, at the direction of Congress, LSC has been examining how varying state and local laws affect eviction outcomes. The initial research brief in that study was released two weeks ago and focused on Shelby County, Tennessee, the Memphis area, as an example to illustrate how the  patchwork of state and local laws governing eviction can seriously affect outcomes. The eviction study will be completed later this year and will support the development of data-driven interventions to address the root causes of housing instability in vulnerable communities in collaboration with our Housing Task Force. 

LSC also convened last month a virtual version of its acclaimed Innovations in Technology Conference, it’s 21st such conference, offering more than 40 sessions to a record 1,100 attendees. This Conference is clearly the leader in promoting the use of new technology to help make our civil-justice system more accessible. 

LSC also launched Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast in August to showcase leaders from the legal community, government, technology, and business sectors who are taking concrete steps to promote equal access to justice. Talk Justice is sponsored by LSC’s Leaders Council and its 10th episode was held at the conclusion of our Tech Conference. If you haven’t already listened, I urge you to take advantage of these compelling podcasts and spread the word. 

Throughout the pandemic, LSC has sought supplemental funding for its grantees as a result of the impact to their operations and communities of the COVID pandemic. We were successful in obtaining an additional $50 million grant that was divided among our grantees as a part of the CARES Act. We continue to  seek additional funding as a part of any new pandemic-relief packag

I can’t conclude this talk today without marking the passing, last week, of two founding members of LSC’s Leaders Council, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and baseball legend Henry Aaron. 

Both were champions of LSC and public in their support. When reports surfaced in 2017 that some in the Trump administration were seeking to defund LSC, Thornburgh wrote a powerful op-ed for his hometown paper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, arguing for the importance of LSC and civil legal aid, recounting his experiences as a founding member of LSC grantee Neighborhood Legal Services Association.

“The families who benefit from legal aid are our neighbors. They are our co-workers and our relatives. They may even be us, “ he wrote. “Fairness in the justice system should not depend on how much money a person has. I’m reminded of the words of one of my heroes, the judge and judicial philosopher Learned Hand, who said: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’ The surest way to comply with Judge Hand’s injunction is for us to step up to the plate and do our part to preserve, protect and defend funding for vital civil legal aid services.”

Henry Aaron appeared at one of the very first events for the newly created LSC Leaders Council, in Atlanta in 2016 with fellow Council members former UN Ambassador Andrew Young and University of Michigan Football Coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh showed up for the event at a training camp he was holding dressed in a Hank Aaron Braves jersey, tucked in his signature khakis. Aaron, whose granddaughter attended the University of Michigan, was later spotted wearing a Wolverine cap.  

When asked why he was becoming a member of the Leaders Council, Aaron’s answer was as sure and certain as the trajectory of any one of his 755 home runs:

“Each year, millions of low-income Americans are denied equal access to justice because they cannot afford a lawyer. We need to change that,” Aaron explained. “I’m looking forward to joining LSC’s Leaders Council to help ensure fairness in our system of justice.” 

Ensuring fairness in our justice system by expanding access is at the center of LSC’s mission and we are so grateful for Henry Aaron’s support.

And I like to think Henry was especially heartened by our doubling down on that mission in ways I just described in these most difficult of times.

“My motto was always to keep swinging,” he once said. “Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”

We at LSC will, indeed, keep swinging, and as long as this Board is in charge, we’ll be swinging for the fences. Just like Hammerin’ Hank.

 Thank you.