Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | Legal Services Corporation: The Justice Gap in America

ABA Annual Meeting, New York City
August 11, 2017

Good afternoon.  I am John Levi, and it is my distinct privilege to serve as the 10th Chairman of the Board of the Legal Services Corporation, and I have no intention of being the last.

Thank you for joining us this afternoon for this important discussion of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the far-too-scarce resources available to meet those needs — what we call the justice gap.

We are particularly honored today by the presence of so many prominent members of the legal community— former leaders of LSC and its Board, State Supreme Court Justices and other jurists, law school deans and professors, leaders of the ABA, government, business, and the legal aid community — far too many for me to acknowledge individually.  Thank you all for joining us today and forgive me for not introducing each of you.  Thank you also to the ABA for supporting this event and for the special concert and rally “Defending Legal Aid” that follows this program today.

In a few minutes, we will hear a discussion of their particular perspectives on the crisis in access to justice with Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court, who is also the President-Elect of the Conference of Chief Justices, and Chief Justice Scott Bales of Arizona.  This discussion will be moderated by the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Jonathan Lippman, now of counsel at Latham & Watkins.

We will also learn about LSC’s newly released study, The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.

Our predecessor LSC Board produced reports in 2005 and 2009 on the justice gap, and this new study provides fresh data and profound insights into how many low-income Americans are unable to secure adequate civil legal assistance, the range of legal problems they confront across our country in every community.  We are very grateful to the Hewlett and Kresge Foundations for providing the significant grants to make this new study possible. 

We will be hearing much more about the details of the report from LSC’s President Jim Sandman, Carlos Manjarrez (Mon-HAR-ehz) the Director of LSC’s Office of Data Governance and Analysis, and Betty Balli Torres, the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and a member of LSC’s Justice Gap Advisory Committee.

 We will also be privileged to hear special remarks from the extraordinary co-chairs of LSC’s Leaders Council — former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Merck Chairman and CEO Ken Frazier — as well as from the Dean of Fordham University’s School of Law, Matthew Diller.

It is no secret to most of you in this room that the population qualifying for civil legal aid in our country is near the high at around 20 percent of our population, while at $385 million from our federal government appropriated for fiscal year 2017, the funding in inflation adjusted dollars is near the low.  This equation forces our grantees to turn away scores of qualified folks in every state because of the lack of resources.  And in the face of that, it is also no secret that, earlier this year, the new Administration’s proposed 2018 budget attempted to defund LSC.  Nevertheless, through your efforts and many others, just two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to maintain LSC funding for 2018 at $385 million.

As we meet in New York City this afternoon to discuss barriers to ensuring equal access to justice, it is fitting to recall another gathering here in 1951 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary celebration of New York’s Legal Aid Society.

The keynote speaker, the great jurist, the Honorable Learned Hand, then Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, delivered a powerful address, and in it he reminded us that:

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

This, in my view, is one of the most famous quotes in legal history about one of the most fundamental values of this country.

The fact that it is . . . and needs to be . . . invoked so often illustrates that even core principles are not self-sustaining.

Forty years ago, when my own father, Edward Levi, ended his service as the Seventy-First Attorney General of the United States, he reminded us in his farewell address that the values on which the country is founded “can never be won for all time — they must always be won anew.”

That is the mission of all of us gathered here today . . . ensuring the victory in our time and on our watch of one of our country’s foundational values — equal access to justice.  As we continue our service, your LSC Board is fully committed and dedicated to doing everything we can to succeed in that mission.

To begin our session today, it is my pleasure to introduce the very distinguished Judge Jonathan Lippman.

In a career spanning more than four decades, Judge Lippman served at all levels of the New York State Court system as an attorney, administrator, and judge.  Judge Lippman was the longest-tenured Chief Administrative Judge in New York history before going on to serve as Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals for seven years.

A New York thoroughbred with his B.A. and J.D. from NYU, Judge Lippman has been a longtime champion of equal access to justice, supporting pro bono efforts and establishing many innovations to help address the crisis in civil legal services.  His success in obtaining significant state funding for Legal Services here in New York has been nothing short of extraordinary and, frankly, we need to borrow him and put his persuasive powers to work in all the other states across the country.

One of the most wonderful things that has happened to me during my tenure as LSC Chair is getting to know and work with Jonathan.

It is a great pleasure to introduce one of the true heroes of the legal profession, a national treasure, Judge Jonathan Lippman.