Laurence Tribe, the former Harvard Law School professor and recently appointed senior counsel at the Department of Justice, continued his public campaign to bring attention to indigent defense issues Friday, calling Americans’ access to justice a “dramatically understated” crisis.
Tribe — who moved to the Justice Department earlier this year to head up the department’s Access to Justice initiative, which focuses on access to counsel for the poor — made his first public remarks earlier this week and highlighted the difficulties low-income individuals have obtaining counsel in civil cases during a panel on Friday during the American Constitution Society’s National Convention
“The whole system of justice in American is broken,” Tribe said. “The entire legal system is largely structured to be labyrinthine, inaccessible, unusable.”
Tribe said he will be working closely with the Justice Department’s congressional arm, including helping to ensure that low-income residents of the Gulf Coast affected by the recent oil spill can apply for compensation from the $20 billion escrow fund set aside by oil company BP.
“We have a crisis,” he said, referring to both the enormous demand for legal aid and the stagnant budget Congress provides the Legal Services Corporation, an organization that grants money to legal aid programs in almost every district of the country.
“For everyone who is accepted by a LSC program, another is turned away,” Tribe said. ‘Surely we are going to have to find ways to do more with less — various kinds of serendipity.”
Tribe, who spent more than 40 years as a law professor, said he was reluctant to leave his position at Harvard when asked by the department to head the Access to Justice initiative. But ultimately, Tribe said, he was glad he did.
“I’ve never done anything more meaningful in my life,” he said.
Frank Strickland, who served on the Legal Services Corporation board from 2003 to 2010, said legal aid programs are significantly deficient. He cited two studies commissioned by the corporation, first in 2005 and an update in 2009. Those studies, commonly known as the “Justice Gap Report,” found that more than half of legal aid applicants are turned away.
“[The report] became a real talking point,” Strickland said. “Congress and the media adopted that phrase: ‘the justice gap.’”
Despite the linguistic acceptance in Congress, Tribe called many of the policies that lawmakers have enacted “penny wise, pound foolish.”
“Even some of those numbers that Frank Strickland has mentioned, that have become almost urban legend … what does that really mean?” he said. “I would love to see a much more convincing and comprehensive study … generating more empirical data.”
Tribe said his initiative will be working with pilot projects throughout the country to gather more empirical data on the issue. In particular, he expressed admiration for the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law’s efforts in California. The Shriver Center, an Illinois-based organization, advocates for improvements in policies and programs relating to access to justice and human rights. It also annually publishes a “Poverty Scorecard,” enumerating how each member of Congress voted on legislation affecting the indigent access to legal aid.
But while the Tribe commended the center’s pilot programs, he remained more pessimistic about the lasting affect they might have.
“I don’t think the U.S. will, in the near future, close the justice gap,” he said.