Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Shriver Center Equal Justice Award

Chicago, Illinois | Hyatt Regency
June 14, 2016

Thank you, David, for that very moving introduction.  And a word about David — I first met him in late 2010, not long after I had assumed this post at LSC.  We wanted to create a Fiscal Oversight Task Force to deal with the 17 deficiencies for which the GAO had cited LSC concerning its conduct of grantee oversight, and I contacted David, as a highly respected former Inspector General for our city, to be a member.  David served on that Task Force with such distinction that we asked him to stay on as a member of LSC’s Audit Committee.

I am also happy to say that with the guidance of that Task Force, LSC cleared all 17 GAO deficiencies a few years ago!

Along the way, David became my close colleague and partner.

It is so special to receive this Equal Justice Award from a center bearing the name of Sargent Shriver, who paved the way for the Legal Services Corporation when the Office of Economic Opportunity, which he established and so ably led, launched its Legal Services Program in 1965.

And how wonderful to be called about the award by the terrific head of the Shriver Center, your own John Bouman, a man who through his own work at the Center and, before that, LAF is so admired across the country.

In accepting this award, I do it not for me, but for all the members of the remarkable eleven person LSC Board that President Obama nominated and the Senate confirmed more than six years ago.  Their investment of time and energy as well as their non-partisan cooperation has been the foundation of all of LSC’s achievements during these past few years.

A principal architect of that foundation is here tonight, my co-awardee, LSC’s outstanding vice chair and Dean of the Harvard Law School, Martha Minow.

We have all counted on Martha’s remarkable insight and wisdom, and I have relied on her good counsel and steady friendship.  I can’t imagine how she finds the time to lend us her extraordinary talents any more that I can imagine where we would be without them.  When our Board decided to create a task force to look into how to better expand pro bono we, of course, turned to Martha to co-chair that effort and what a remarkable report that Task Force produced.  Unfortunately for Martha, early in our work, I memorized her cell phone number, and I sure have dialed it.

Let me also take a minute to recognize another of our LSC Board members.  Here with us tonight, Laurie Mikva, a Clinical Professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.  Laurie has served our Board with great distinction and I would ask her to stand for a moment to be recognized by you.

Our Board knows well that the real work, however, happens in the field, and I want to thank the staff of LSC‘s 134 grantees and other legal aid organizations in every congressional district in every state who pursue their absolutely vital work without fanfare and without the financial rewards that many in our profession enjoy.

Last year, more than 61 million Americans qualified for civil legal aid during the entire year, and 30 million more qualified because they lived for two months or more at or below 125% of the federal poverty guideline — nearly thirty percent of our population.

But, unfortunately, LSC funding from our Congress continues at a near all-time low in inflation adjusted dollars — in actual dollars $385 million, which is still below the $400 million actually appropriated in the mid 90’s, 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 our population qualified for LSC-funded assistance.

To put this into perspective, the current appropriation to LSC for basic field grants to legal aid – the amount that can be used to fund the day-to-day operations of legal aid programs – is about equal to what Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes.  For their pets.

And spending from all sources on civil legal aid is far less than what Americans spend on Valentine’s Day candy.

And, unlike our nation’s commitment to justice, the right to eat chocolate hearts in February — and I may be disappointing the chocoholics in the audience — does not find a place in the first line of the Constitution or the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance.

When our LSC Board came into office, we saw that — while the legal aid community was doing a great job of talking to itself — we needed to do a much better job of educating the greater legal community and the public at large about the crisis and what it means for the future of our democracy.  We still do.

This is not an issue that we can leave only to the lawyers, as the idea of equal access to justice is a core value of our country, a part of our DNA, and the crisis in access to our justice system for low-income Americans should be everyone’s concern.

So our LSC Board formally kicked off a national dialogue on this at a forum we co-hosted at the White House in April of 2012.

We have held similar forums at every LSC Board meeting around the country since and have returned annually to the White House four times as we continue to call attention to the crisis.

Our Board is confirmed well into 2017 and we fully expect to return to the White House next spring!

 These forums have included leaders from business, government, philanthropy as well as the greater legal community.

This broader focus also continues with LSC’s recently announced initiative — the LSC Leaders Council.

Comprised of leaders in the fields of law, business, academia, sports and other disciplines, the Leaders Council will also help raise awareness of LSC and its important work across the country.

Three of its members, Jim Harbaugh, Hank Aaron and Andrew Young, met just 12 days ago in Atlanta to give attention to this crisis.  As Jim Harbaugh said:  “I’ve learned a lot about the problems low-income folks are having accessing our justice system.  I may be a football coach, but I’m an American first, and all Americans should care about justice.”

And Hank Aaron put it:  “Each year millions of low-income Americans are denied equal access to justice because they cannot afford a lawyer.  We need to change that.”

We must all help our nation honor the promise of equal justice.  It is fundamental to our democracy and the principle that makes democracy possible — the rule of law. 

As Sargent Shriver so eloquently observed fifty years ago this week during a major address he gave here in Chicago:

“As a profession, we are defending the rule of law — not as a bastion of privilege — but as a revolutionary ideal — as fundamental as democracy itself — as timeless as the principle of justice — as current as the latest Supreme Court decision.  That’s why the legal profession has provided one of the great new weapons in the War Against Poverty — justice — legal justice — social justice — moral justice — for all.”

Those of you who know the history of the Legal Services Corporation know that we have been at times flying in turbulent air, sometimes even with an engine or two knocked out.  But I commit to you, that Martha and I will do our very best to see to it that when our Board leaves office, LSC will have every single one of its engines operating at full throttle and we will be flying high!

I am deeply honored to receive this award.

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