Remarks by John G. Levi at ABA House of Delegates

Chicago, IL | ABA Meeting | July 2018
August 7, 2018

Good morning.  Thank you, Madam Chair, for that warm introduction.  It is a privilege to address the ABA’s House of Delegates and to do so still as the 10th Chair of the Legal Services Corporation.

Thank you to Hilarie Bass for being such a strong partner with LSC this year, as I know Bob Carlson will be as he assumes the ABA Presidency.

The ABA’s SCLAID and Pro Bono Committees and their remarkable Chairs, Lora Livingston and Buck Lewis, are wonderful champions and supporters of LSC.

I routinely refer to the ABA as LSC’s indispensable ally, and for good reason.

You have been there since the beginning, and the last couple of years, as LSC funding hung in the balance, you really rallied to our cause.

And, as you heard, ABA Day, when you bring lawyers from around the country to Washington to speak to Congress about the importance of adequately funding LSC, is a crucial annual event for LSC.  We are grateful to you, Madam Chair, your predecessors and successors and to Tom Sussman and the ABA’s government relations team for all the work you do to make this happen.

The past two years at this Meeting, you have sponsored a terrific rally and concert on behalf of LSC.  Marty Balogh has created a tremendous event, which I sure hope will be an annual tradition.

ABA leaders stay engaged with LSC beyond their terms in office. 

Your former President, Robert Grey, has been an outstanding member of our LSC Board and now Co-Chairs another new LSC task force focused on the opioid epidemic.

But did you know that six other former ABA Presidents serve on LSC’s Leaders Council, and two of them on our newly formed Disaster Task Force, along with your current President-elect?

As I said, indispensable.

These two task forces were launched at LSC’s April Board meeting in Washington and have already held significant meetings.

The Opioid Task Force comprised of 30 leaders from the legal and medical communities, government, veterans and social services organizations will highlight the critical role legal aid programs are playing in helping people address the opioid crisis and identify best practices to meet these challenges.

LSC’s Disaster Task Force includes 60 leaders from the legal, business, emergency management and medical communities.  It will develop a systematic approach to preparing for and responding to the civil legal needs of low-income Americans who have experienced a disaster.

The Opioid Task Force will soon hold hearings in Indianapolis and Kentucky, while the Disaster Task Force will do so in Houston and Miami.

We invite ABA members who are interested to attend.

These task forces are the latest in a series of LSC initiatives.

Partnering with Microsoft, Pro Bono Net and Pew, LSC is developing statewide portals — called Legal Navigators — to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance.  Pilots are being built now in Alaska and Hawaii and are expected to be running early next year.

In the coming days, LSC will award another $4 million in Technology Initiative grants as a part of its profession leading program launched in 2000, which has placed LSC and its grantees in the forefront of the use of technology to extend civil legal assistance.

Last week, LSC awarded this year’s Pro Bono Innovation Grants to 15 legal aid organizations in 13 states helping to promote and expand pro bono delivery systems across the country.  This annual $4.5 million dollar program is in its fifth year.

For the third year, LSC and Equal Justice Works selected 30 law students for the Rural Summer Legal Corps to help provide additional critical legal assistance in underserved rural areas.

And LSC’s Leaders Council — now nearing 100 members (a number of you are in this room today) — continues to pull together leaders from many disciplines in support of LSC.

Despite these and other efforts of LSC, the ABA and stakeholders in the profession and legal aid community, America is still burdened by an enormous justice gap — the shortfall between the legal needs of low-income Americans and the legal services available to them. 

Nearly 60 million Americans still 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, remains near an all-time low when the need is near an all-time high. Although Congress actually increased LSC’s funding for 2018 to $410 million, that figure is significantly below what is needed, and even below the $420 million appropriated by Congress in 2010.

LSC’s latest Justice Gap Study, released last summer, 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 resources.

Alarmingly, and I mean alarmingly, overall, the study found low-income Americans received inadequate or no professional help for 86% of the civil legal problems they face in a given year.  And the impact on their lives can be devastating.

The National Center for State Courts estimates that in almost 75 percent of civil cases in state courts, one or both parties are unrepresented.  The numbers are even higher in certain high-volume, high-stakes cases.  It is common in state courts that more than 90 percent of low-income tenants facing eviction have no lawyer — while about the same percentage of landlords are represented — and for more than 90 percent of parents in child support cases to be without counsel.

If beautiful Wrigley Field was filled to its 42,000 seat capacity with client-eligible folks, how many civil legal aid lawyers do you think there would be to serve them?  If you guessed four, you would be right.  Four!

Imagine how many months — probably years — it would take just to adequately handle their issues.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  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, folks, equal justice is not charity!

 It is, as Supreme Court Justice and former ABA President Lewis Powell observed, “one of the guiding principles of our democracy.”

Equal justice is non-partisan and crucial to our democracy and to the rule of law.

As Sargent Shriver, then Director of LSC’s precursor — the Office of Economic Opportunity — said at the ABA’s annual meeting in 1965:  “The extension of legal services to the poor is only a means of a more universal end — one we both share — the establishment of the rule of law.”  He added, “It is that ordered quest for dignity, for justice, and for opportunity which is the central concern of society. . . .”

A few years later, the first Republican Director of the OEO, Donald Rumsfeld, echoed those thoughts in testimony before Congress:  “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.”

In a few short weeks, our schools will reopen and our teachers and students will, as we at LSC do to formally begin our Board meetings, recite our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.  As those stirring words “with liberty and justice for all” are spoken, how many of those teachers and students will wonder to themselves if this is a reality for them and their families or just an elusive goal.

As we approach the 250th birthday of our nation in 2026, we absolutely must redouble our efforts to expand access to our justice system so we may more fully realize our nation’s commitment to equal justice and the rule of law.

With the help of the ABA and this House, we will succeed!  We have no choice. 

Our children and grandchildren are counting on us!

Thank you very much!