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. In a live-streamed presentation on March 15, 2022, Gupta 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 is the third-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Justice and has made history by being the first Indian American and the first person of color to hold this position. Prior to her current appointment, Gupta served as President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is the oldest and largest coalition of non-partisan civil rights organizations in the United States. 

Gupta began by noting the incredible responsibility we have as members of the legal profession. She quoted former Attorney General Robert F. 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 … will our profession have lived up to its responsibilities.”  

Maryland attorneys, according to Gupta, 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. She noted 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. While the pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis, it also served as a catalyst for reform, including in Maryland. Gupta is hopeful that states 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 the tools 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. Addressing housing in this country is a critical part of the DOJ’s commitment to increasing access to justice and reducing the barriers and 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 counsel in eviction proceedings. 

Gupta explained that providing legal counsel to tenants can enormously impact eviction proceedings, which is why Attorney General Merrick Garland asked the legal community to volunteer time and assistance to confront the ongoing housing and evictions crisis.  In response, law students and lawyers from across the country stepped up to take on cases. Addressing the housing crisis is just one piece of the DOJ’s efforts. Last fall, 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 grant-making programs to support access to justice work and assessing how to transform our legal systems. It partnered with the U.S. trustees program to help people in financial distress access the bankruptcy system. It is exploring ways to combat the criminalization of poverty, support individuals in immigration proceedings, and expand support for public defenders as well. 

Gupta explained that access to justice is not simply an initiative at the DOJ, but is part of the foundation of our country. The ideals that we are still striving to realize, like freedom, equity, and justice for all, require a commitment from all of us.

The entire presentation is available here