The MSBA recently presented the second program in its 125th Anniversary Thought Leadership Initiative SPARK Series, featuring Vanita Gupta, U.S. Associate Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice. Gupta, the third-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Justice who made history as the first Indian American and the first person of color to hold this position, spoke about how attorneys can work to ensure access to justice. MSBA’s Thought Leadership Initiative is a one-of-a-kind series of programs and events that aims to inspire members of the legal community to contemplate and discuss the role of the legal profession in furthering the cause of justice, not only in Maryland but also in the United States and throughout the world. The Initiative focuses on four themes: the ethical obligation of lawyers to serve as Guardians of Justice; the legal profession’s role in leading efforts to ensure Access to Justice for marginalized communities; the responsibility of the profession for Reforming Justice to alleviate historic inequities; and its emerging obligation to address challenges and opportunities currently found at the intersection of Science, Technology, and Justice.
Gupta began by noting the incredible responsibility and power that we have as members of the legal profession. She recalled how former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy implored attorneys to support equal justice under the law by using their knowledge and skills to advance the rights of those who are most vulnerable. She quoted Kennedy, stating, “it is time we use … our precision, our understanding of technicalities, our adversary skills, our negotiating skills, our understanding of procedural maneuvers on behalf of the poor. Only when we have done all these things, when we’ve created a system of equal justice for all, a system which recognizes, in fact, the dignity of all people, will our profession have lived up to its responsibilities.”
In Gupta’s opinion, Maryland attorneys are living up to those responsibilities. Maryland is only the second state in the country to provide statewide access to counsel in eviction proceedings, demonstrating to the rest of the nation what is possible with commitment and creativity. She said that it took hard work from the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, the MSBA, the Maryland Legal Services Commission, and many others to pass legislation ensuring such access and congratulated all who took part in achieving this goal.
She pointed out that the housing crisis is a long-standing systemic problem. We have never had a national infrastructure or policy for preventing avoidable evictions. Even before the pandemic, over three million people were displaced in a typical year. While the pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis, it also served as a catalyst for reform, in Maryland and throughout the nation. Gupta is hopeful that states and localities across the country will follow Maryland’s lead in securing a right to counsel for tenants. She called on Maryland attorneys to continue to have conversations around access to justice and examining and reimagining the tools and structures we have to help people in need.
Turning her focus to access to justice issues at the federal level, Gupta highlighted how the DOJ has partnered with and supported state and local efforts, explaining that this work is one of the primary reasons she was prompted to return to the DOJ. Addressing housing in this country is a critical part of the Justice Department’s reinvigorated commitment to increasing access to justice for every American and reducing the barriers and entrenched disparities in our civil legal systems. Last spring, the DOJ launched an effort to promote the use of court-based eviction diversion strategies and access to council and eviction proceedings.
In June, Gupta sent a letter to courts around the country urging them to implement eviction diversion strategies and encouraging them to build out more comprehensive programs that might include access to counsel. Many courts took significant action even in places where statewide access to council wasn’t within reach, and Gupta is hopeful that more state courts will implement similar programs in the coming months. Gupta explained that providing legal counsel to tenants can enormouslyimpact the resolution of eviction, which is why Attorney General
Garland issued a call to action asking the legal community to volunteer time and legal assistance to confront the ongoing housing and evictions crisis. As a result, law students and lawyers from across the country have stepped up to take on cases. Addressing the housing crisis is just one piece of the DOJ’s efforts. Last fall, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the DOJ would reinvigorate its role in leading access to justice policy initiatives across the government through the launch of the Access to Justice Office (ATJ).
ATJ is exploring ways to maximize and increase grant-making programs to focus on and support access to justice work and assessing how to catalyze broad-scale transformation and innovation in our legal systems. It is also partnering with the U.S trustees program to help people in financial distress access the bankruptcy system and obtain needed relief. It is exploring ways to pursue economic justice and combat the criminalization of poverty, building initiatives to support individuals in immigration proceedings, and working on expanding support for public defenders nationwide as well. Finally, regular collaboration with state Access to Justice commissions will be a priority for ATJ. Gupta explained that access to justice is not simply an initiative or a project at the DOJ; instead, she believes that it is part of the foundation of our country. The ideals that we are still striving to realize, like freedom, equity, and justice for all, and disrupting the devastating connections between race, poverty, and injustice, require a commitment from all of us. Although she is heartened by the energy in the state access to justice systems, thinks we still have a long way to go.