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Legal Services Corporation at the California Supreme Court

Posted By Kevin R. Johnson, Oct 6, 2015

I attended the national quarterly board meeting of Legal Services Corporation at the California Supreme Court yesterday. 

I said hello to our alum , the Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil Sakauye '84, as well as my law school classmate and former King Hall visiting professor Scott Bales, who currently is the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. Gary Smith, Executive Director of Legal Services of Northern California, attended the meeting.  It was a wonderful group of supporters of legal services. 

I was invited to make remarks at the meeting. Here's a copy of what I said:

Welcome all of you to this 40th anniversary national quarterly meeting of the Legal Services Corporation.  It is truly an honor to be here with you today.  And it is an honor to be at the California Supreme Court.  I note with pride that Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye of California, who is deeply devoted to access to justice issues and will be participating on the first panel of the day, is an alumna of UC Davis School of Law.

I have been provided a few minutes to offer some introductory comments.  I come to this celebration of the Legal Services Corporation’s birthday wearing a variety of hats here today.  All in different ways touch on access to justice.

I occasionally function as a lawyer and have handled pro bono matters for a number of years.  My early work involved landlord/tenant and related matters at a pro bono clinic run by what is now the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights for the San Francisco Bay Area.  I become deeply involved in handling pro bono cases for Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States in the 1980’s.  The San Francisco legal community has a strong commitment to pro bono work.

As a scholar, I have written about access to justice issues, including the pressing need for immigrants to have access to counsel.  Importantly, there is no guarantee of counsel in removal cases in which the immigrant faces possible deportation from the United States, including separation from friends, family, and community.  Not surprisingly, low- and moderate-income noncitizens without counsel are removed at much higher percentages than those with counsel.

I am also Dean of a public law school, which is housed in a building named after Martin Luther King Jr.  We are fortunate to attract a truly excellent student body and one dedicated to social justice.  As a public law school at a land grant university, the faculty feels that we have a special obligation to strive to serve the public.

It is in this capacity that I want to focus my remaining remarks.  There are important roles that law schools can play in promoting access to justice.  Pro bono programs – even mandatory pro bono, fostering volunteer opportunities, creating externship programs, sponsoring post-graduate fellowships, and other things can provide students the encouragement and access to public interest opportunities as well as knowledge of what public interest lawyers in fact do.  Students sometimes complain that law schools do not do enough to encourage students to pursue public interest careers.  I am not sure that I agree but we should be conscious and intentional in ensuring that students know of, and have access to, those opportunities.

At UC Davis, we have done some very good work but, in my estimation, have much more to do.  We work diligently to build relationships with organizations that promote access to justice for all.  Faculty as well as students work with those organizations.  One of those groups is Legal Services of Northern California, a LSC-funded organization that serves a very large geographic territory – from Solano County to the Oregon border, from Benicia to Eureka to the Mother Lode.  Many rural poor, including many communities of color, comprise LSNC’s client base.  I am proud to say that I am President of the Board of Directors and have worked closely with LSNC for approximately twenty years.  We have law students who work in externships during law school at LSNC.  We have students working summers helping to provide legal services at LSNC.  We have alums who take full time jobs after graduation at LSNC.  We have alums who have assumed leadership roles in the organization.   A few years ago, LSNC and UC Davis created a new post-graduate fellows program.  With funds from an endowed chair in public interest law, we fund a fellow to work as an attorney at LSNC for a year after graduation and began a public interest career.  We also have LSNC leaders, including the Executive Director Gary Smith – on his own time, teach public interest law classes at the School of Law.

LSNC is not the only LSC-funded organization that our law school works with.  We have a close relationship with California Rural Legal Assistance, which Cruz Reynoso, who is on our faculty, once lead through challenging times.  We send many alums to CRLA.  Indeed the long-time Executive Director, Jose Padilla, refers to UC Davis as “CRLA’s Law School” because we have so many attorneys there, some of whom play leadership roles.          

Like a number of law schools, we also have a loan repayment program that helps students who pursue careers in the public interest to repay their student loans.  These programs are laudable yet costly.  Paying for those programs is one of the things I worry about. 

Law schools also can encourage access to justice through the curriculum.  The push for skills training by the bar makes this a good time to think more about internships at public interest organizations.   

There are other things that law schools can do.  Law schools should be thinking how they can help the access to justice gap that exists in American society.  The courts and legal community should be as well.  The gap is great and, in many respects, has not changed all that much over the last twenty years.  We must do more, often with fewer resources.  Justice depends on our success.

Thank you.