At Main Justice, an advocate for Main Street
A venerated Supreme Court practitioner makes it his mission to expand access to the lower courts
Professor Laurence Tribe ’66, who has been teaching at HLS for four decades, is back in Cambridge after nine months as the first head of the new Access to Justice Initiative at the Department of Justice, launched in March 2010 to improve access to justice for all, the middle class as well as the poor. Tribe left the post in December to continue treatment with his physicians in Boston for a benign brain tumor, first diagnosed in 2008.
Although his DOJ tenure was brief, Tribe says the initiative is on firm footing with a staff of six excellent lawyers, and he expects his successor as senior counselor to be announced soon. It has already begun a number of projects to fulfill its mission, including working with the Department of Commerce to deploy broadband technology in Washington and North Carolina to make vital resources like legal services accessible to people who are in remote locations or can’t afford them. It is also working with the Vice President’s Office and the Office on Violence Against Women to forge partnerships among law schools, legal services providers, and law firms in Baltimore and New Orleans to assist domestic violence victims, and it has a number of other partnerships and projects in the works. “All of these things are still in the embryonic stages,” he says. “But I’m excited at the fact these efforts are blossoming, and I think they will represent an important beginning.”
Tribe hopes and expects that the initiative will work with Congress to lift certain restrictions on the Legal Services Corporation, which receives federal funding to provide civil legal services to the poor. He says the Legal Services Corporation has been “unduly restricted” because it isn’t allowed to handle class-action suits or to represent certain clients. But, he adds, “One of the greatest frustrations of the position was that it is not easy to get things through Congress.”
Tribe says he was honored when President Barack Obama ’91 appointed him to head the new initiative. “One theme of the election was that there is a real crisis in the American justice system that might be less visible than other crises we face, but that is fundamental, given the constitutional guarantee to equal justice for all,” says Tribe, who has argued 35 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the historic Bush v. Gore case on behalf of presidential candidate Albert Gore Jr. “President Obama and Attorney General Holder sensed it was crucial that the problems in accessing equal justice must be addressed even though they can’t be solved by quick fixes.”
Such a focus in the Justice Department has been needed for a long time, Tribe believes, because overworked public defenders often carry caseloads that are “much too heavy to provide a meaningful defense,” while middle-class and low-income litigants have trouble navigating the civil justice system. “I think we as a country have pushed that problem under the rug and not given it the focus it deserves,” he says. While changing that is a tall order, Tribe believes it can be done. “We were inspired by medical-legal partnerships, where people who come into the emergency room or neighborhood clinic might end up having problems that can be solved by a legally stern letter to a landlord who won’t clean up a problem with mites, rather than giving the person expensive medications for asthmatic conditions,” he says. “Finding ways of creating partnerships in a community-based context is both a great challenge and a great opportunity.”
The initiative, he says, also serves a vital function in highlighting things that work in the system, and focusing a critical spotlight on those that are “pernicious.” For instance, he notes, “Railroading juveniles through the system without any legal advice and accepting deals they struck without their knowing that it might derail their lives is a practice we are able to reduce simply by highlighting it.”
“I’ve cared all my life about the problems of people being unjustly treated,” Tribe says. “I thought, after 40 years of academic life, with occasional forays into arguing Supreme Court cases and helping countries draft their constitutions, this was an opportunity to help make a concrete difference in people’s lives. I believed it would be very satisfying to be involved in that process, and I was right.” —E.M.
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