On January 27, David Udell, executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School, delivered the keynote address at the annual Justice for All Luncheon of the New York State Bar Association.
In the address, Udell spoke of ways in which the New York legal community—the legal aid bar, the private bar, the City of New York, the State of New York, and other stakeholders—had united to meet the challenges posed by a federal executive administration that in the 1980s had denied access to justice to New Yorkers with disabilities, placing them in jeopardy along with their families and communities. At that time, the government terminated Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits across the country, relying on secret unpublished policies that in many instances took away the sole source of income relied on by millions of people with disabilities.
In New York, the response was broad and deep. The City of New York and the State of New York, participating both as plaintiffs and as co-counsel, joined in lawsuits against the federal government. The civil legal aid bar hired more attorneys to fight the federal government’s action, turning to the City and State of New York, and the philanthropic community as well, for the new funding needed to pay for the new staff. Private law firms, serving pro bono, extended the work of the legal aid bar, handling the overflow of individual administrative cases and federal court appeals, and participating as co-counsel in class action lawsuits challenging the federal policies, including one lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Rudolph Giuliani, then U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, joined the fight, notifying the attorney general that he would not allow the Southern District of New York to defend the federal government’s unjust policies.
Udell then pointed out that the same strategies developed in the 1980s fight against the federal disability policies are certain still to be useful today if, as some anticipate, the federal government adopts policies aimed at denying access to justice to the poor. As in the 1980s, these strategies will include expanding the capacity of the legal aid bar, relying on the private pro bono bar, and looking to the City and State of New York for financial and litigation support. Already, the legal aid bar, private pro bono law firms, and the City and State are rising to meet the challenges posed by the new federal administration’s detention and deportation policies.
Udell noted that, in addition to possessing the advocacy capacities developed in the 1980s, the New York community today has developed the capacity to use new tools that include new technologies, data, and communications. He described the National Center for Access to Justice’s own Justice Index, a resource that relies on data to promote reform and create incentives for officials to expand access to justice in state justice systems. In an era of “alternative facts,” Udell said, “the capacity and ability of lawyers to insist on accurate facts has become critically important.”
Udell urged the pro bono bar to become involved in four ways:
- bringing their “A game” to pro bono case work with the legal aid programs and other nonprofit service providers
- volunteering in the model pro bono programs created by the New York State Unified Court System
- supporting a comprehensive justice system reform agenda dedicated to expanding access to justice
- serving on boards and contributing financial support to civil legal aid programs and staying committed to preserving and strengthening the Legal Services Corporation, the federally funded institution that is “uniquely important” for its institutional memory, scope of issue coverage, and broad reach into every zip code in the United States.
Udell concluded his talk by encouraging the attendees to consider why they had become personally involved in doing pro bono work and challenging them with the following question: “How will you do more in the year ahead?”
“We all know there will be more, much more, to do,” he said.
Udell will be speaking again on Thursday, February 16, on a New York Law School panel that will explore further considerations concerning access to justice and economic justice in the Trump era.