By Steve Schuster
American Bar Association (ABA) members gathered Tuesday in Washington, D.C. and virtually for The ABA Center for Global Programs’ people-centered justice event, “Putting People First.”
The event highlighted modern approaches to promoting the rule of law in the U.S. and around the world that prioritize citizens. The program featured remarks by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Justice Department, and other officials. The program also addressed both domestic and international programs across the ABA, such as the Commission on Immigration, Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, and the Rule of Law Initiative.
ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative was created with the mission to “promote justice, economic opportunity and human dignity through the rule of law.”
Rachel Rossi, Director of the Office for Access to Justice at the Justice Department delivered remarks Tuesday addressing opportunities to improve the justice system.
“Sometimes many of us can become siloed into our own contexts, not realizing that another country, city or organization has learned and adapted to certain challenges which we also face,” Rossi said.
According to Rossi, Attorney General Garland reestablished the Office for Access to Justice in October 2021.
“I am proud to say that this broad mission of access to justice is among the Attorney General’s highest priorities. The Office for Access to Justice works to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protections of our legal systems and government — that justice does not depend on your income, age, gender, status, identity, ability or the language you speak,” Rossi said.
The Office for Access to Justice also collaborates on the pursuit of access to justice before international organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to Rossi.
“We believe that justice should belong to everyone. And at the core of this mission and lofty goal is a need to understand where the access gaps are, who is not at the table, and what barriers communities face to the promise of justice,” Rossi added.
A people-centered approach to access to justice, starts with humility and acknowledges that structural inequities exist, Rossi said.
“Indeed, our legal systems have failed too many people, and have not delivered their promises and protections for all. And it requires consistently centering of the voices of the people we serve, particularly the voices of historically underserved and marginalized communities, to develop solutions that close these justice gaps,” Rossi added.
According to the U.S. Census, the number of people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home has nearly tripled since 1980, from 23.1 million (about 1 in 10) in 1980 to 67.8 million (almost 1 in 5) in 2019. As a result, the Office for Access to Justice has hired the first ever department-wide Language Access Coordinator to “mitigate language barriers and ensure a seat at the table for communities historically marginalized due to the language they speak,” Rossi noted.
Rossi also mentioned how the Justice Department recently celebrated 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the right to counsel in criminal cases in Gideon v. Wainwright.
“High-level Justice Department officials joined me in visits with public defenders, impacted communities and advocates across the United States, from urban cities, to southern, midwestern, tribal and rural areas. We heard about barriers to ensuring effective access to legal aid and announced a number of actions in response. And we’re looking forward to issuing a publication that will uplift these stories later this year,” Rossi said.
Rossi also noted that Attorney General Merrick Garland recognized the importance of Gideon v. Wainwright and stated the decision “reaffirmed that the law protects all of us – the poor as well as the rich, the powerless as well as the powerful. In so doing, it reaffirmed this country’s commitment to the Rule of Law. And trust in the Rule of Law is what holds American democracy together.”
In closing, Rossi noted that people centered justice is central to developing trust.
“This is why the work all of you do every day is so important. Work to expand data, transparency and innovation, and to promote access to justice strategies for all, can bridge trust gaps between marginalized communities and officials,” Rossi concluded.