Laurence Tribe, the Harvard University law professor who took leave of absence to become senior counselor at the Department of Justice focusing on indigent defendant issues, made his public debut on Monday at the National Institute for Justice conference in Arlington, Va.
Tribe — whose students have included President Barack Obama, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski — announced that the initiative would be partnering with the NIJ to issue a new grant solicitation for access to justice related research.
Tribe joined the Justice Department in March to focus on the issue of access to counsel for the poor, which Attorney General Eric Holder had called a “very serious problem.” But The New York Times reported that he had been given a “small staff, a limited budget, little concrete authority and a portfolio far less sweeping than the one he told friends he had hoped to take on in Washington.”
But during his speech on Monday, Tribe said the Access to Justice initiative, if backed by proper research, “could potentially transform the entire field and help narrow the gap between our aspirations of justice and the justice we actually deliver to our citizens. Narrow the gap between rhetoric and reality. There are truly endless opportunities.”
Tribe said he was happy to be working for an administration that had respect for scientific inquiry.
“I believe one of the greatest threats to progress is the casual, even contemptuous attitude towards evidence and reality that some people in positions of power have at times displayed,” Tribe said. “An attitude that has spread a brazen sense of willingness to censor and manipulate evidence for political gains. I am deeply grateful to serve for a president and in an administration that has respect for evidence-based reality.”
He encouraged the crowd to explore through research the potential for providing adequate defense services to the lower and middle-class.
“As many of you know, reforming indigent defense is a top priority for Attorney General Eric Holder and for the Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson,” Tribe said. “Currently, public defenders are hamstrung by a lack of research that shows not only that court defenders are necessary to guard and enhance justice, but also to examine what we strongly suspect is true: that good defenders appointed early in the case can create significant savings in the criminal justice system, often resulting in a net negative cost rather than a net positive cost.”
The 2010 National Institute for Justice Conference continues through Wednesday.