Congressman Joseph Kennedy III (D. Mass) told us in a speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last week that he plans to launch an Access to Justice Caucus in the House of Representatives next year.
This is obviously an important additional step in the now rapidly building of a new national support network for access to justice innovation and resources. It joins the Conference of Chiefs Resolution, the White House Presidential Memorandum on LAIR , the DOJ Access Initiative, and the Public Welfare Foundation’s access work, as very significant additions to the group of existing organizations that have previously been involved in this work.
Having congresspeople and their staffs actively involved in the issue can only help move a broad transformative agenda forward — one that goes beyond the critical but insufficient one of protecting LSC. Anyone who knows anything about Washington knows that having someone in the room makes all the difference, whether early in the markup process, in the final hectic hours when decisions about tens or hundreds or millions of dollars are made in literally seconds, or in the complex negotiations about legislative text which can often have far greater significance and impact than the participants realize. So having a group of Congresspeople who care enough to inform themselves is beyond value. Moreover, the creation of the caucus will signal the arrival, or rather the re-arrival and resuscitation of an issue too long in the background for the nation as a whole.
It is particularly appropriate (and moving to some of us) that Congressman Kennedy is the one taking the lead on this. Readers of this blog will recall that I previously shared in this space the speech on access to justice his grandfather, Robert Kennedy, as attorney General gave in 1965. As I wrote when I posted that speech, almost everything we are doing now was foreshadowed there. (The main exception being using technology for access to justice.)
One point the Congressman made, which is rarely understood or addressed, was the absolute artificiality of the current almost complete barrier between civil and criminal access to justice. That he explicitly addressed this issue — often a bit of a third rail in both defender and community based legal aid groupings — suggests that he is willing to take a broad look at our whole system. That, surely, is in his genes.
P.S. I should add that the Symposium on Making Justice Accessible at which the Congressman spoke, was held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences under rules that permit attribution only with the consent of the speaker. I have obtained this consent from Congressman Kennedy.
P.P.S. Here is the formal announcement.
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Glad to hear about his intent to address the artificiality of the criminal/civil artificial distinction. Reasonable minds can disagree on whether Turner v. Rogers was a good or bad decision, but what most of can probably agree on is that it unfortunately re-established the criminal/civil barrier that had been eroding for some time. Prior to Turner, courts finding a right to counsel in contempt cases had emphasized that what mattered was the interest at stake and not the arbitrary label the state placed on the proceeding, but Turner relied on the “civil” nature of such proceedings to rule against the right to counsel.
The debtor’s prison cases are reinvigorating the conversation about the criminal/civil distinction, since it’s very difficult in many of those cases to tell whether the debtor is being jailed criminally or civilly. And as more public defender programs engage in a hybrid representation model, that will move the ball as well.