Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good evening. It’s an honor to be here tonight at this event, together with so many partners and leaders in the fight for equal access to justice. Thank you to the Philadelphia Bar Association for your leadership and for hosting this event. And I want to acknowledge those who have been recognized with awards tonight. The commitments you have made to the work of serving those most in need is truly inspiring.
We know that today, and particularly in the wake of a global pandemic, the justice gap continues to preclude too many from meaningful access to the protections and rights promised by our legal systems.
As Attorney General Garland has frequently said, one of his highest priorities is focusing on the urgent mission of access to justice. Last year, he announced the reestablishment of the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice, reporting through Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta — a longtime leader in this work. And I was honored to be named the Office’s Director earlier this summer.
The Office has since been working on a phased strategic growth plan to establish and imbed our voice and role in this effort to pursue access to justice. We’ve been working to modernize and expand the office’s work, vision and scope, and we are currently engaged in career hiring to expand our staff.
Our mission is to engage in the bold, transformative and systemic work necessary to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protections of our legal systems. So what does that look like?
First, the core concept of access means fairness and equity. In our Constitution and in our federal and state statutes, we have articulated a powerful set of rights. But those rights are not worth the paper they are printed on, if people do not have the means to vindicate them.
This of course means meaningful access to counsel and legal assistance. But it also means simply ensuring that when a person receives a legal notice, they can understand it. It means thinking about how a person can get to a hearing, whether that means access to transportation to appear in person, or access to broadband and technology so they can appear virtually. And it means breaking down the economic hurdles, like unjust fines and fees, that can impact justice outcomes not on the merits, but based on status or wealth.
We only have equal justice under law when we remove these barriers so that every person in this country has the ability to meaningfully and effectively exercise and vindicate their rights, and to take part in the protections promised by our laws.
Your city’s Right to Counsel laws have recognized this and are truly a remarkable step toward balancing the scales of justice for all in a number of categories of civil proceedings, including in evictions.
Second, access requires us to incorporate principals of innovation and modernization. We live in a time when technology is developing and evolving at a pace that most of us can barely keep up with. I know my own computer crashes at least twice a day.
Technology provides us with opportunities to streamline systems so that we are reducing legal burdens on people, particularly historically underserved populations who may already be facing layers of complex obstacles to accessing justice. And the pandemic both highlighted the need for resources and system improvement across our courts, and spurred overdue modernization and technological improvements.
But innovation means so much more than technological fixes. There are times when only the assistance of another human will do. And so innovation also means finding creative ways to reconnect people in need of assistance to counsel, advocates or navigators, or creating novel strategies or techniques for reaching people and making sure they know what their rights are and how to exercise those rights – much like you’re doing right here with your Elder Justice and Civil Resource Center.
Or, there are times when our very legal practices and proceedings simply require new approaches and new visions entirely. Innovation also looks like the Philadelphia Eviction Diversion Program, which enables landlords and tenants to arrive at an agreement without having to go to Court; or the Law and Justice Mentoring Program highlighted tonight.
Finally, access requires the systemic work to ensure the integrity of our underlying legal systems. We must not only work to dismantle barriers to our existing legal systems and support expanded legal assistance; we must also engage in the transformative work to reform the underlying inequities within the systems themselves.
And this starts with an acknowledgement that our legal systems have failed too many people. In part, these failures are the result of structural inequities that are deeply embedded in our society and systems. In order to build community faith and trust in our institutions, we have to ensure that they operate fairly and accomplish their promised goals.
With these broad guiding principles guiding much of our work, I’d like to share some of our Office’s accomplishments so far. We’re supporting access to counsel and legal assistance. This includes Justice Department efforts to expand legal assistance and eviction diversion strategies across the country in the wake of expiring eviction moratoria. ATJ is working to build upon this work to continue the pursuit of access to justice in eviction and foreclosure proceedings.
Also, last fall, then White House Counsel Office and Attorney General Garland reconstituted the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), a collaboration of over 28 federal agencies which ATJ directs, staffs and runs. We convened the first Roundtable Principal’s Convening and issued the 2021 report, Access to Justice in the Age of COVID-19. We’re currently working towards the 2022 convening and report.
In January, we moved the Federal Pro Bono Program into our Office and expanded its resources for the first time in over 20 years. This expansion will allow ATJ to create pathways for thousands of federal attorneys to volunteer to help fill the justice gap.
We’re working to pursue access to justice in criminal legal systems. In April, during Second Chance Month, ATJ led the drafting and publication of the Reentry Coordination Council’s Report, a collaboration of six other federal agencies to present recommendations to Congress on reducing barriers to successful reentry for individuals released from incarceration.
In conjunction with the report, ATJ worked with justice system-impacted individuals to host a reentry simulation that allowed high-level officials from all member agencies to better understand and discuss the complex hurdles and barriers faced by people impacted by the criminal legal system.
And just last month, first time in over five years we hosted a meeting with Justice Department leadership and national public defense organizations, and officially re-launched quarterly convenings with the public defense community.
We’re also working to promote language access. In May, ATJ hired the Department’s first ever Department-wide Language Access Coordinator. We are building a language access team to expand access for those who are not English-dominant speakers, both internally across Justice Department programs and the courts we oversee; and externally, supporting our state and local partners in this mission.
We’re revitalizing the access to justice amicus brief and statement of interest filing practice to use the Justice Department’s voice to support access to justice principals in litigation. Most recently, ATJ, in partnership with the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, issued a statement of interest in the case against the Town of Brookside, Alabama that alleges an unconstitutional enforcement of municipal fines and fees and seizures of vehicles during traffic stops.
We’re promoting access to justice for those seeking reproductive health care. In July, our office supported and assisted to staff a convening hosted by Attorney General Garland and White House Counsel’s Office, with Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and other officials called Lawyers in Defense of Reproductive Rights and Justice.
And we’re revitalizing the access to justice voice of the United States internationally. This summer, I joined the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss U.S. efforts to eliminate racial disparities and pursue access to justice. And last month, I spoke at the OECD Global Access to Justice Roundtable in Riga, Latvia, where 38 member countries convened to collaborate on people-centered approaches to access to justice.
And this is only the beginning. We still have far to go as we build and hone our office’s scope and work, and we have much to learn, particularly from work at the state and local levels, by many of you in this room.
As I close, I’d like to bring this broad concept of access to justice back to the foundational “why” – the reason it all matters. The people we serve. As a young public defender, I had a client who was houseless, had mental health issues, and consistently racked up new misdemeanor charges for sleeping on the sidewalk. And he always came back to court, with his shopping bag full of citations, dutifully, for each arraignment.
But when I told this client that the system afforded him two options — he could plead guilty or we could fight his cases at trial, he told me he chose neither. He came back to court each time, and each time I presented him with the only two options under the legal system as it operated. And he just continued to say no – neither of those options was justice.
He knew that a system that would force him to obtain a criminal conviction for not having a home and a bed was not justice. And he knew that spending weeks in back-to-back trials was simply not justice either. I ended up crafting significant mitigation and pushing for months. Eventually — once I had tired everyone in that courtroom out—all his citations were dismissed.
This client taught me an invaluable lesson about the mission of justice that I have carried with me throughout my career. This pursuit often requires us to reimagine our systems, and to push for visions that others may not yet see as possible.
I know that many here have been at this for decades. And this is a fight that is hundreds of years old – the struggle for freedom, equality, autonomy and dignity, framed just down the street from where we are today.
But as you continue in this critical pursuit, know that we will join you in refusing to accept a widening justice gap, in continuing to creatively and boldly push for more, and in demanding the promised ideals of equal access to justice, until they are realized. I look forward to partnering with you in this work. Thank you.