What We Believe

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In a 2010 speech the ABA Pro Bono Publico Awards Luncheon, Laurence H. Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, stated:


“Law and justice are not synonymous. Law is a means. Justice is an end. As we know all too well, law has not always operated to advance the cause of justice. In American history, as in the history of the world, law has at times served to enslave and oppress, to obfuscate and entrap rather than clarify and liberate. Defined at its most basic level, the mission of the Access to Justice office that the President and the Attorney General asked me to lead is to release the liberating and equalizing energies latent in our nation’s legal heritage – to help make the lofty rhetoric of “equal justice under law” into everyday, on-the-ground reality, making justice an active verb.”

“As the Attorney General has repeatedly remarked, ours is a justice system in crisis, both in indigent defense and when it comes to providing adequate civil legal assistance for the poor, the working class, and the struggling middle class:

• When only the wealthiest among us have their legal needs met, justice will remain an unrealized ideal.

• When a public defender, buried in a mountain of work, has only moments to absorb the facts of a case before standing up to represent her client in court, justice is not alive and well.

• When poor kids, theoretically entitled to counsel under Gideon and Gault, waive that right without legal advice in a flurry of legal proceedings incomprehensible to them, never understanding the long-term consequences such a decision can have for their opportunity to go to school, get a job, or enter the military, justice remains only a distant hope.

• When so many people are evicted from their homes or lose custody of their children or are deprived of their ability to seek asylum in this country without the guiding hand of counsel, justice is not a reality.”

“The problems we face aren’t episodic. They are systemic. Over half of those who qualify for and seek assistance from the 137 principal federally-funded legal assistance programs must be turned away because the level of available funding is so low. Many of them have no other option. They simply become more vulnerable to injustice because they are poor. And many millions more remain vulnerable to the shattering impact of a single event – a home foreclosure, a denial of medical or veteran’s benefits, a denial of help for a sick or troubled child. These are the millions in our shrinking middle class who face devastation because, for them, the price of justice is too high.”

“You have all heard of the trickle-down theory – the theory that, if we help those at the top, those at the bottom will eventually benefit from the fallout. I’ve never been convinced about that. But I am convinced that, if we help those at the bottom, we will necessarily raise the level of the great river that flows when barriers to justice are lowered.

The challenge, of course, is to do just that — to use our privileged positions as guardians of the law to lift up the most vulnerable and needy among us – when so much else competes for our attention. “The road is long,” say the lyrics of one of my favorite songs, ‘With many a winding turn/ That leads us to who knows where/ Who knows when/ But I’m strong/ Strong enough to carry him/ He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.'”

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