More than 400 ABA members, representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, descended on Capitol Hill on April 25-27 for the association’s annual effort to connect policymakers with constituents in the legal profession during its ABA Day 2017.
The lawyers spoke with their representatives in Congress and their staffs about the importance of funding Legal Services Corporation, which provides civil legal aid to nearly 1.9 million low-income people annually who desperately need help to navigate the legal process so they can get equal access to justice. The new administration has proposed a 2018 budget that defunds LSC.
On April 25, the ABA also presented four members of Congress with its Congressional Justice Award to acknowledge their leadership on issues critically important to the legal profession. ABA lawyers also spoke to congressional members about issues affecting veterans, particularly H.R. 1993, the Homeless Veterans Legal Services Act, which authorizes private-public partnerships with the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve access to justice for homeless veterans.
This year’s awardees are:
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) was honored for her efforts to improve access to legal services, pass immigration reform and eliminate discrimination. She was an original sponsor of S.2540, the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016, to make counsel available for unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people. She was one of the “Gang of 8” that introduced 2013’s Comprehensive Immigration Reform (S.744) and she led a 2014 delegation to the Texas border to call attention to thousands of unaccompanied children. She also introduced bipartisan S.733, the Filipino Veterans Family Reunification Act of 2015, which led in June 2016 to President Obama creating a parole program to reunite families of Filipino World War II veterans. In July 2016, Hirono introduced the Patsy Mink Gender Equity in Education Act to provide resources for implementing Title IX and reducing sex discrimination in education.
In accepting the award from ABA President Linda A. Klein, Hirono pointed to three things she had learned in her life: “Individuals do make a difference, showing up is half the battle and that it is necessary to get out of one’s comfort zone and take risks to achieve anything.”
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass. 4th) was honored for his dedication to legal aid and access to legal services, as well his work for equal rights. He established and co-chairs U.S. House Access to Civil Justice Caucus and spoke at the 2016 White House Legal Aid Conference. He has served as a legal aid volunteer and has written articles and convened meetings to gain support for more federal dollars for legal aid. In 2016, he testified for a Massachusetts state transgender rights bill that is now law and introduced the Do No Harm Act to balance religious liberty and equal protection. He also introduced the Fair Calculations in Civil Damages Act of 2016 (H.R.6417) to prohibit awarding damages based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion or actual or perceived sexual orientation.
“Lawyers are compassionate and smart, merciful and fair,” Kennedy said, accepting the award, and noted that it is their responsibility to maintain the LSC, the “lifeline for working families, for abused women, for homes kept.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) was honored for his efforts to increase funding for legal assistance. As chair of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, Shelby increased Legal Services Corporation funding for 2015 and 2016. Also, in 2013, as Ranking Member, he successfully worked with the ABA and with chair Tim Johnson to preserve the attorney-client privilege during the bank examination process, and has voted in support of the ABA’s position on tort reform.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas 13th) was honored for his efforts to improve military justice. As chair of the Armed Services Committee, he helped pass the first major reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 30 years (FY17 NDAA). He modernized the code to improve efficiency and transparency, while also enhancing victims’ rights; preserved the right of a service member to choose whether to be sentenced by court members or by a military judge alone; and avoided efforts to impose sentencing parameters in the military justice process and to rescind certain appellate rights without compelling justifications that went against Senate and Department of Defense proposals.
On April 16, Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan kicked off a ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court Building for the ABA Grassroots Advocacy Awards.
“You are doing the Lord’s work,” Kagan told those gathered for the two-day lobbying effort. “This is so important – the Legal Services Corporation – so many people depend on it, and depend on there being adequate funding for it.”
President Klein then presented Oregon attorney Edwin A. Harnden with the award, thanking him for his “tireless efforts to expand legal aid funding and increase access to justice for all.”
Harnden has spent two decades advocating for increased access to legal aid for Oregonians. A past bar president, he has worked to encourage lawyers to support the Campaign for Equal Justice and has worked extensively with political and community leaders to address funding shortfalls and seek long-term solutions.
Accepting the award, Harden said he was honored to be “among those who not only stand for something, but stand up for something….I’m very cognizant of the powerful impact we can have out there in the real world.”
The other Grassroots awardee was Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that has 10 field offices and advocates for vital services that help unaccompanied children in the United States, including facilitating pro bono representation for deportation proceedings. It has also increased awareness among policymakers and the public about the rights and needs of unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children, using social media and creating a Children’s Speaker’s Bureau.
On hand to accept the award was Laurie Carafone, KIND’s co-director of Legal Services, and Christie Turner, the supervising attorney who oversees KIND’s Washington and Virginia field offices. Carafone said that in response to the refugee crisis of recent years, KIND has tripled its staff and harnessed the power of 400 law firms to help refugee children who arrive at our borders in need of legal help.