Director Rachel Rossi Delivers Remarks at the 2023 Texas Poverty Law Conference

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon. Thank you, Judge Livingston, for that kind introduction, and for your tireless commitment to increasing access to justice for all. Thank you also to Cindy Tisdale, Trey Apffel, Harriet Miers and the State Bar of Texas and the Texas Access to Justice Commission for your leadership and for organizing this important convening.

It’s an honor to be here today, in the company of so many attorneys and advocates who have dedicated their careers to bridging the gap between the aspirations and the realities of our legal systems.

As I think about the expertise demonstrated by those leading the meetings and events over the last few days, and the career focus of those in this room, I am humbled. You are on the front lines of the civil access to justice crisis in this country. It is not easy work. It demands deep wells of empathy, resilience, dedication and innovation. Thank you for your service.

Our mission at the Office for Access to Justice is to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protections of our legal systems. We work to break down barriers to the founding principle and enduring promise of equal justice under law.

This is why it is an honor to join you today at the Texas Poverty Law conference.

Justice belongs to everyone, not only those with wealth or status. Justice cannot be purchased. If it is only accessible to those with power, money or influence, we simply cannot call it justice.

Our Office has now grown from zero to over 35 passionate professionals, and growing, all working together to build initiatives that advance these principles.

So what does it mean that justice belongs to everyone? And how do we make this tenet real?

One of the most intuitive ways is by leveling the playing field in legal processes and supporting the expansion of access to legal assistance.

For too many, access to counsel depends on access to wealth.

But in almost every legal arena, studies have shown that justice outcomes are heavily influenced by access to legal help.

Despite the promises of Gideon v. Wainwright, defendants in criminal cases are often unrepresented during bail hearings or at their first appearance, increasing the likelihood that they will be detained pretrial, face longer periods of pretrial detention or have bail set at a higher amount, all outcomes that are associated with higher convictions rates, harsher sentences and higher rates of recidivism.

And when public defense is available, lack of resources and staff can make fulfilling the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment difficult, or even impossible –leading to the effective denial of counsel.

In housing court, tenants facing eviction are eight times less likely to have a judgement entered against them if they are represented by a lawyer.

Represented plaintiffs in federal employment discrimination cases are significantly less likely to have their cases dismissed than unrepresented plaintiffs.

Individuals seeking protective orders against abusive partners are significantly more likely to receive them if they are able to retain counsel.

And represented litigants filing for bankruptcy are significantly more likely to have their debts discharged and to avoid dismissal than those who are unrepresented.

The list goes on.

Those of you in this room do the immensely honorable and vital work of fighting to ensure that everyone in Texas, regardless of income or wealth, has access to legal help.

The Office for Access to Justice works to amplify this mission as well, both by facilitating direct services and by advocating for policies that expand access to counsel for indigent and marginalized communities.

As one example, earlier this year, we led a country-wide tour to mark the 60th anniversary of Gideon, during which high-level Justice Department officials joined me in visits with public defenders, impacted communities and advocates across the United States. We traveled from urban centers, to southern, midwestern, Tribal and rural areas.  And we announced specific actions our Office would take, informed by what we heard.

The Deputy Attorney General joined us to launch the tour and announced a comprehensive review of access to counsel in Federal Bureau of Prisons pre-trial facilities. Our office was proud to co-lead that review and report which we released in July. The report contains over forty concrete recommendations that we are working with the Bureau of Prisons to implement.

We are also seeking to expand legal help by launching an innovative Civil Legal Services Pilot Project to provide civil legal help to women incarcerated in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.

By providing targeted civil legal services to incarcerated women, we hope to improve successful reentry outcomes and disrupt the cycle of incarceration, unresolved civil legal needs, poverty and recidivism.

I’m also proud to say that our office promotes access to counsel by facilitating pro bono work by federal government lawyers and paralegals.

Our office leads the work of the Federal Government Pro Bono Program, and we are expanding its resources and staff for the first time in over 20 years. 

The Pro Bono Program operates across the country, with over 50 federal agencies participating. Through the Program, we screen pro bono opportunities and connect federal government attorneys with legal services organizations to do this work.

We want our volunteers to help amplify the work many of you do every day. They are able to represent and advise clients on a wide range of issues, including housing, family law, domestic violence, estate planning, employment and more.

Our attorneys regularly handle eviction, custody, adoption and consumer cases. They draft wills, advance directives and powers of attorneys. They staff advice clinics and serve as guardians ad litem.

I’m pleased to share that Texas is one of the states where our program is active and robust. We have federal attorneys who volunteer at the virtual and in-person clinics run by Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, an organization I believe is represented here today. We are grateful for, and hope to continue to expand, that partnership and to activate even more federal agencies and attorneys to assist.

But we know that ensuring justice belongs to everyone requires more than expanding access to counsel. It also requires us to address the many other hurdles that keep low-income communities from accessing the promise of justice.

Addressing lack of transportation or broadband in rural areas for people who live far from the courthouse steps. Simplifying court processes so that people can more easily receive the benefits and protections of our laws.

And ensuring language access, so that justice doesn’t depend on the language you use. We know many of you are the only lifeline your clients have to overcome language barriers that would otherwise prevent them from vindicating their rights. Expanding language access is vital work that our systems must do a better job supporting.

Last year, our office hired the first-ever DOJ-wide language access coordinator, Ana Paula Noguez Mercado. She chairs the department’s Language Access Working Group, which is comprised of representatives from offices across the Justice department.

The working group promotes policies and resources to ensure that — across all Justice Department programs, services and activities — we are mitigating language barriers and ensuring a seat at the table for communities historically marginalized due to the language they speak.

And as we build out our language access work, we also want to find ways to serve as a partner to legal service providers, courts and other local leaders seeking to expand language access across the country.

We’re also working to promote justice for all by extending the reach of our access to justice mission across government.

The Office for Access to Justice directs and staffs the work of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, a collaboration of over 28 federal agencies co-chaired by Attorney General Garland and White House Counsel’s Office. Allie Yang-Green in our office serves as the executive director of the roundtable.

In 2022, the roundtable focused on simplification of government. In our 2022 report, Access to Justice Through Simplification, we developed a roadmap for people-centered simplification of federal government forms, processes and language.

The report looked at an age-old problem — complexity of government — and applied a unique and new lens. In focusing on ways the federal government can simplify its forms and processes, our federal agency members prioritized regularly incorporating engagement with legal service providers as a critical and valuable tool.

We heard from over 70 state and local legal aid and advocacy organizations about the top federal forms and processes where simplification can reduce the need for their clients to seek legal assistance to access benefits, services, programs or resolve disputes. Learning from that engagement, we developed a roadmap in our 2022 report to imbed this type of collaboration between federal government agencies and legal service providers as a regular practice.

This year, we are continuing to expand on these efforts, and we look forward to sharing our 2023 report with you all soon.

Our work to ensure that justice belongs to everyone often requires efforts like this, to expand access to counsel, and to break down barriers to access. But it frequently also requires much more than dismantling the hurdles that keep people from the courthouse doors or from accessing government.

Equal access to justice requires us to root out longstanding systemic inequities as well, to reform and ensure the integrity of the legal systems themselves.

Many pervasive injustices in our legal systems are the result of institutional practices that appear neutral on their face, but, in practice, preserve wealth as a predictive factor in justice outcomes.

Take, for example, the use of fines and fees in our legal systems. Across the country courts have come to rely on fines and fees for both revenue and punishment. But when fines and fees are assessed without consideration of ability to pay, it can have a devastating impact on a person’s life.

While a $500 fine for violating a municipal ordinance may be an inconvenience to an affluent litigant, for a low-income litigant it can mean choosing between complying with a court order and feeding their children or paying rent. And if an individual chooses food or housing over the court, the ramifications, both direct and indirect, often escalate at an astonishing rate.

Individuals who are unable to pay court-assessed fines and fees can face snowballing financial penalties, extended justice-system involvement, suspended driver’s licenses and unnecessary incarceration. I don’t need to tell this audience that the indirect consequences — loss of housing, employment, access to necessities, and even custody of one’s children — can be even more devastating.

Earlier this year our office partnered with the Civil Rights Division and Office of Justice Programs to issue a fear colleague letter to state and local courts and juvenile justice agencies, cautioning against the assessment of legal system fines and fees which may be unlawful or racially discriminatory or may unfairly penalize individuals who are unable to pay.

But we know that it is not enough to just tell courts to simply “stop assessing fines and fees.” Our court systems are under-resourced, and we have to promote and support alternatives. We have to bring those alternatives to communities that would not otherwise have the catalyst or resources to explore a different approach.

In this spirit, the Office for Access to Justice will in the next few weeks publish a guide that will summarize some of the most effective and most innovative efforts to reduce reliance on fines and fees taking place across the country.

Our guide will also provide concrete examples of implementation at various levels of government. Alongside the fines and fees dear colleague letter, we hope this guide will serve as a resource for policymakers looking to decrease systemic reliance on fines and fees as a source of revenue and to redress the harms fines and fees can cause.

It’s only fitting to talk about this issue here in the great state of Texas. In Texas in 2016, 95% of warrants were for unpaid fines and fees and 640,000 people were jailed for failure to pay alone. Then, in 2017, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 1913, thanks to considerable work from community groups, many in this room, and the Texas judicial council, lead by Chief Justice Hecht.

As many of you know, SB 1913 requires judges and justices of the peace to conduct ability to pay hearings at sentencing and to offer community service alternatives for individuals who are unable to pay.

The Texas statute has one of the most expansive definitions of “community service” of any state. It includes work or job skills training programs; educational programs; alcohol or drug abuse programs; rehabilitation programs; mentoring programs; and work for a governmental entity, nonprofit organization or educational institution.

After SB 1913 went into effect, the number of litigants incarcerated for failure to pay dropped by 22%. More cases were waived due to indigence, and the issuance of arrest warrants for failure to appear dropped significantly.

These are important reforms that can serve as a model for other states. And I know many of the people in this room are working to ensure the full promises of this significant legislation are realized on the ground and in the courtroom.

We are proud to highlight Texas’ work in our guide. The guide will also spotlight other jurisdictions that have adopted innovative practices related to other aspects of fines and fees policies as well.

But policies on paper can only go so far. As our office works to support innovative strategies and promote programs that incorporate modern, evidence-based practices, it is essential that we remain in contact with those witnessing implementation on the ground, support and promote methods to reduce hurdles that can arise, and we must never be afraid to course correct.

These are just a few of the ways that our office continues to build initiatives, centering this principle, that justice belongs to everyone. 

But it is important to recognize that this critical work — fighting for this ideal — is not always done on a national scope. It’s not always about broad policies, large stages or new programs and initiatives.

One of the most important ways to make this promise real is the work that you do every day. Standing beside the communities that are too often left behind, and fighting for them loudly right where they are. One person at a time. 

It may be in a courtroom – to opposing counsel or to a judge. Or it can be sitting in an office, or a clinic or a client’s home.

It could be arguing at a hearing or filing a motion, or it could be navigating a form or providing guidance through a complex process.

When I was a public defender, I witnessed how justice system involvement and unmet civil legal needs so often go hand in hand. And how effectively these forces can work together to perpetuate cycles of poverty. I have also seen how poverty obscures access to justice across all communities — from urban to rural — and across all aspects of the law. 

I saw clients, often navigating the most devastating day in their life, enter a legal system that processed them like a case file, one of many case numbers on a very long docket that had to be resolved as quickly as possible.

To me, one of the greatest honors of the job was forcing everyone in that courtroom to hear the story, life and struggle of my client. To shine a bright light on the injustice of the compounded systemic failures they had faced.

You all are the first line of defense for so many Texans navigating challenges like these. I know it’s not always easy. Many here have been at this fight for decades. Amplifying access to justice through each case and each client. Most often unseen, without recognition or praise.

Your work is significant. Your commitment matters.

Direct services for low-income communities, provided with creativity, empathy and humanity, are a powerful antidote to systemic indifference and are essential to ensuring our systems are accountable to the communities they are supposed to serve.

But no one can do it alone. We cannot do it without collaboration, mutual support and open communication. It will take all of us to amplify the harms, the needs and the solutions, with all of the different tools we each have, with innovation and creativity, and in all of the different spaces that we occupy.

When we bring all of our tools to bear, I do believe that justice can be within reach for everyone.

So as we continue in this joint mission, I hope that you will see the Office for Access to Justice as a partner. We want our programs and initiatives to support and uplift your work. The Office for Access to Justice looks forward to standing beside you as we work together to make real the promise of equal justice for all.

Thank you again for having me.

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