Congress seeks to improve America’s justice system and make it more fair to everyone

Lisa McCormick, New Jersey’s leading progressive activist, said lawmakers in Washington will propose a new law on Monday to reinvigorate efforts to ensure equal access to justice, repairing the damage done when Trump Republicans shuttered the agency charged with helping the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.

McCormick said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Don Bacon (R-NE) plan to introduce the Office for Access to Justice Establishment Act of 2021 to establish the Office for Access to Justice within the Department of Justice (DOJ).

“The Justice Department first launched an access to justice initiative in 2010,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey activist. “Building upon that important effort, an Office for Access to Justice was formally established in 2016 to plan, develop, and coordinate the implementation of access to justice policy initiatives of high priority to the department and the executive branch, including in the areas of criminal indigent defense and civil legal aid. However, during the Trump administration, the office was effectively shut down.”

“The Justice Department first launched an access to justice initiative in 2010,” said McCormick. “Building upon that important effort, an Office for Access to Justice was formally established in 2016 to plan, develop, and coordinate the implementation of access to justice policy initiatives of high priority to the department and the executive branch, including in the areas of criminal indigent defense and civil legal aid.”

“However, during the Trump administration, the office was effectively shut down,” said McCormick.

“Trust in the rule of law – the foundation of American democracy – depends upon the public’s faith that government seeks equal justice for all. That is the Justice Department’s core duty, and the mission upon which it was built. But without equal access to justice, the promise of equal justice under law rings hollow,” wrote U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a memo to the Justice Department’s leadership in May, directing them to reinvigorate efforts to seek and secure meaningful access to justice.

The bill will be introduced today, Monday, July 19, 2021. U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) will introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

Under this legislation, the established Office for Access to Justice would promote fair and just outcomes in the justice system that are accessible to all, irrespective of wealth, status, or station.

The bill would formally authorize the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable to promote civil legal aid and defense, improve coordination and promote federal programs that support vulnerable populations, and develop recommendations for federal funded programs and policies that will improve access to justice.

“Every American, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserves equal justice under the law,” said Nadler. “Unfortunately, far too many do not have access to the legal help they need. That’s why I am introducing legislation to establish the Office for Access to Justice, ensuring that those most in need have the same access to legal help as everyone else. I applaud President Biden for his efforts to revive this vital resource at the Department of Justice, and I look forward to working together as we seek to root out systemic inequities in our justice system.”

“While legal assistance is a constitutional right in criminal cases, many low-income folks face real hurdles in acquiring legal aid in civil cases and other court proceedings. This needs to change,” said Upton. “This important, bipartisan legislation will help ensure that those in need – particularly the most vulnerable among us – have access to legal services, well-trained attorneys, and ample resources so that they have a fair shake in court.”

“Equal justice under the law cannot be achieved when the deck is stacked against those who do not have access to counsel,” said Scanlon. “Decades of studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans cannot obtain legal counsel when they need it. The Office of Access to Justice will help our most vulnerable citizens, the courts, and lawmakers, by identifying best practices and efficiencies, making recommendations to improve services, and addressing gaps in the patchwork of underfunded legal services agencies, pro bono volunteers, and self-help upon which low-income Americans and the courts rely. I’m proud to join this bipartisan effort to expand access to the nation’s legal system, support the work of civil legal aid providers and public defenders, and improve opportunities for representation and equity in our justice system.”

“We should always strive to uphold a fair and impartial justice system,” said Fitzpatrick. “I am proud to support this legislation, which would improve access to civil legal aid and justice for all Americans, regardless of background.”

“Access to justice cannot be premised upon ability to pay,” said Jackson Lee. “I am proud to support this legislation, as it will ensure that a voice remains within the Department of Justice to protect the right to counsel and to preserve justice for vulnerable communities.”

“We always should seek to improve our judicial system and make it more fair,” said Bacon. “This legislation will further trust within the justice system as they aim to support a vulnerable population in our nation and provide better access to a fair and unbiased legal system. For those who have been underrepresented by the justice system in our communities, this bill will help be a solution and improve the outcomes of our future.”

“Without equal access to legal resources and representation, there is no justice for all. I’m proud to reintroduce this bipartisan legislation with Chairman Nadler and Senator Cornyn that would codify the Office of Access to Justice, which President Biden reinstated so we can ensure all Americans have equal access to legal representation and protect an important constitutional right,” said Sen. Murphy.

“Every American deserves access to a fair and impartial justice,” said Sen. Cornyn. “By re-establishing the Department’s Office for Access to Justice, we are protecting and preserving justice for all Texans under the Constitution.”

The Office for Access to Justice Establishment Act authorizes the Office for Access to Justice to:

  • Serve as the principle legal advisor for the DOJ on rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution;
  • Provide legal and policy advice to the Attorney General on the issue of ensuring access to justice for low-income and other under-represented groups in the civil and criminal justice system;
  • Lead the Legal Aide Interagency Roundtable as the Executive Director;
  • Coordinate with other divisions of DOJ to ensure each is properly considering issues of access to justice, including on grant and funding decisions; and
  • Consult with the Secretary of State and serving as the authority on access to justice before international and multilateral organizations.
  • The Office for Access to Justice Establishment Act is endorsed by more than 40 organizations including: R Street Institute, Center for American Progress, Fair and Just Prosecution, Fines and Fees Justice Center, Christian Legal Society, Human Rights Watch, Juvenile Law Center, Voices for Civil Justice, ACLU, and Youth Collaborator.

The full bill text is available here

A section-by-section is available here

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