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The Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) welcomed members to participate in the fourth annual MSBA Day (previously known as “Lobby Day”) on January 24, 2023. It was the first time the MSBA conducted the event in person since 2020.

MSBA day allows members to learn more about MSBA’s legislative priorities and advocacy efforts. As the voice of Maryland attorneys, the MSBA advocates not only for the interest of the legal profession but also stresses the importance of increasing access to justice. MSBA members learned more about access to justice and the legislative priorities for the 2023 Legislative Session via a panel discussion with Reena Shah, Executive Director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue, and the Executive Director of Maryland Legal Aid, Vicki Schultz. 

To Schultz, the greatest challenge facing our legal system, whether criminal or civil, is racial and economic inequity. She believes, “as lawyers and as citizens, we all have to care that our legal system is fair and accessible to all.” She noted that, as lawyers, “we believe in a system that’s fair, that takes all comers and, and allows for representation, but if you live in poverty, that representation is not a given.”  Schultz explained that people living in poverty struggle with many issues, and their poverty is often criminalized. 

Dartigue noted equity is a critical issue in increasing access to justice. In her role as the leader of the public defender’s office, she often speaks about equity which for her takes two forms: equity in terms of the clients they serve and equity in terms of those who advocate on behalf of the clients. To her, it’s “imperative that we not only do better as an agency, but we do better as a society.” She was encouraged to hear Governor Moore speak in terms of understanding that problems in our society stem from poverty. She elaborated, “when we think about poverty, we think about broken social structures, we think about lack of economic opportunity, and essentially, that is where the fertile ground is for crime.”

At the public defender’s office, they adopt a holistic approach and understand that to advocate well on behalf of the client, you have to do so with a total understanding. They are engaged within the community, but are also seeking and supporting interventions outside of the community. Dartigue pointed out that the Office of Public Defender and Legal Aid essentially serve the same population, as often their clients have both civil and criminal issues, and “often you cannot address one effectively without the other.”

Schultz and Dartigue discussed the criminalization of poverty, noting that people are arrested and detained and enter into the criminal justice system for no other reason other than the fact that they are poor and cannot pay fines or fees. Once they have a criminal record, they face collateral consequences that prevent them from accessing the support they may need to pick themselves back up. 

During the 2023 Legislative Session, some priorities for the Office of the Public Defender are obtaining additional funding, expanding geriatric and medical parole, protecting the rights of individuals with mental illness and those who are committed to psychiatric institutions, and fighting to keep families together. Maryland Legal Aid advocates for parity among publicly funded public interest lawyers, seeking housing reforms to ensure the legal processes in place are fair and consistent and making the expungement process easier. The MSBA, through its sections and committees, looks forward to collaborating with our justice partners to achieve these priorities.

Additional information about MSBA Day and the MSBA’s advocacy efforts is available here.