I am so pleased to be here tonight to help honor these
wonderful advocates and supporters of legal aid in Pennsylvania.
The last several years, we’ve heard a lot of public debate
about patriotism and what it means to be an American. We’ve seen more
red-white-and-blue fluttering in the breeze; we’ve heard more choruses of
our national Anthem, and we’ve taken a harder look at the words in the
Pledge of Allegiance we all know by heart. While we may debate many things
in this great, diverse, multicultural country, we agree that one of the
most fundamental promises of America is that it be a nation with “liberty
and justice for all.”
Yet we know that we don’t yet have equal justice for all.
Legal rights and remedies --without the education to understand them, or
the means to enforce them --- become empty promises. Justice without
access is no justice at all. This should matter to all of us.
As Martin Luther King wrote in 1963 from a jail cell in
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
caught in an escapable network of mutuality tied in a single
garment of destiny.”
More than a million Pennsylvanians live in poverty. The
cry for legal assistance is loud and clear. Pennsylvania Legal Services
(PLS) is critical to answering that call. Last year, PLS helped
improve the lives of over 700,000 Pennsylvanians and produced measurable
outcomes in real dollars pumped into local economies and the creation of
Unfortunately, studies show that these efforts as
currently funded reach only a fraction of indigent Pennsylvanians. With
over a million Pennsylvanians living in poverty, more resources are
As we are all aware, we are living in difficult times for
funding of legal services and other nonprofits. Government budgets are
being cut, and domestic initiatives of all types are threatened. But I am
optimistic; we have lived through dark times before, and two strengths
always get us through the storm.
The first is innovation in the way we work
and think of ourselves as a community.
The passage of The Access to Justice Act, and the idea of
allowing a filing fee surcharge, is a specific example of an innovation
which has helped ease the pain of funding cuts from IOLTA and other
sources. Unfortunately, this legislation has a sunset provision if the
legislature does not extend the act, an important source of revenue will
disappear. So all of us must use our own collective influence to help
ensure the extension of this vital source of funding for legal services in
Another innovation is the way in which pro bono work has
evolved in our profession: If you look at the history of legal services,
legal aid for the poor once consisted mostly of isolated local efforts,
without government funding or significant support from the private bar.
Although the ABA created the standing committee on legal aid in 1921, it
wasn’t until the 1960’s that Congress made federal funds available for
legal services to the poor under the Economic Opportunity Act, and not
until 1974 that the Legal Services Act was signed. And it was only about
25 years ago that the Legal Services Corporation first required that a
portion of federal funds to local agencies be dedicated to promoting pro
bono work by the private bar.
Today, in most places, pro bono work is considered part of
a lawyer’s professional responsibility. Legal services partnerships with
private attorneys, with bar associations, and with legislators and
governmental leaders now constitute an integral part of the delivery of
As an example, one Office of General Counsel program that
I am most happy about is the OGC Pro-Bono program. Traditionally,
government law offices have been slow to allow their lawyers to take pro
bono cases because of concerns about conflicts or the use of the public
office for a private purpose. The Office of General Counsel has
established a policy which encourages pro bono participation by setting
firm guidelines on which cases our lawyers can take and how they can work
with the local legal services offices to handle these matters.
We have also looked for innovative ways to enhance our pro
bono participation. Last year we established the Virtual Law Clinic with
the help of Sandy Ballard and the Dauphin County Bar Association and our
local legal services office. Through this program, our lawyers are able to
help clients in a variety of cases that the legal services office does not
have the resources to handle. Much of the work can be done by computer,
email and phone – thus the name Virtual Law Clinic.
The other strength that has gotten us through difficult
times is the steadfast commitment and passion of a strong core of
supporters like tonight’s honorees – and indeed, nearly everyone in this
room. It is the unwavering determination of these supporters ---
advocates, legislators, donors, educators and law firms that effectively
institutionalized their commitment to service --- that promises a bright
sky on the horizon.
I am honored to be here tonight to help celebrate the 2005
Excellence Award winners. Your work inspires us all, and I believe that
the importance of us working together cannot be understated. The concept
of a government of ‘we the people’ requires that we be active participants
in making the vision of America real for all its citizens.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer has said that American
law is created not simply by legislators or judges, but by a process –
“It is one of law “bubbling up” out of the interaction
of groups interested, affected individuals, experts, organizations such
as private firms, unions, bar associations, and many others as well.
Interactions take place through discussion and debate in the press, in
journals, in public meetings, at colloquia, at legislative hearings, and
in dozens of formal and informal ways. These interactions take the form
of a national conversation …out of which will emerge a legal product ….”
Let us take every opportunity to participate – tonight,
tomorrow, next week -- to push the conversation forward, to shape a state
and a national law that fulfills the vision of our founders, so that we
will some day, live in a nation with liberty and justice for all.
Congratulations to the 2005 Excellence Award winners.