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American Academy Symposium: Making Justice Accessible

On November 11th, 2015, Jonathan Fanton welcomed the participants of “Making Justice Accessible,” a symposium of judges, lawyers, and legal scholars concerned about the state of legal services for the underprivileged. Participants examined obstacles to access in both the civil and criminal justice systems, evaluated the most recent research, and discussed possible solutions. This event marked one of the first initiatives to emerge from the Exploratory Fund.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I welcome you to the House of the Academy, and to our symposium on making justice accessible for low-income Americans—a serious issue affecting far too many people living in our country.

I am grateful to John Levi for proposing this meeting, to Martha Minow and Lance Liebman for working with John to fashion our agenda, and to John Tessitore and Julian Kronick of the Academy staff for bringing us all together.

One of the primary roles of the Academy is to share the scholarship and professional expertise of our members with the broader public. And so I am pleased that Diane Wood, Goodwin Liu, and David Tatel will lead a public discussion on the state of legal services later this evening. The audience will include Academy members as well as scholars and students from the Boston area. In addition, we will be live-streaming the event to groups of Academy Fellows and guests gathered together in New York; Chicago; Washington, DC; and Berkeley. Thank you Diane, Goodwin, and David for extending the reach of the conversation we are having today.

“Making Justice Accessible” is the first symposium supported by the American Academy’s Exploratory Fund. The Fund was established earlier this year to assist members who want to come together to explore pressing issues that are not receiving adequate attention, or to peer over the horizon at problems and opportunities not yet fully recognized. Future meetings supported by the Exploratory Fund will include a conversation about the future of jazz as a distinctive but embattled American art form, an analysis of the relationship between global studies and area studies, and a discussion of the best ways to incorporate scientific information into the legal system—a subject of interest to many of you here today.

Just where the exploration of each topic leads will depend on the meeting participants. Some groups may come together once or twice; others might propose an issue for the Academy’s journal Dædalus, and still others might initiate ongoing projects at the Academy, at universities, or at think tanks. I will be interested to learn where your conversation these next two days takes us.

Our topic today, “Making Justice Accessible,” brings together two longstanding interests of the American Academy: a concern for the poor and a determination to strengthen our independent judiciary.

As an historian, I am always drawn to the Academy’s archives, and to past studies that may be relevant to contemporary issues. So let me share what I found that may be of interest to you in your work.

Benjamin Dearborn, an educator and inventor was elected to the Academy in 1794. Dearborn was a vocal advocate for the poor and the underrepresented. In 1797, he sent a letter to John Adams asking the Academy to organize a committee to aid widows and orphans as well as the community at large. He said in his proposal to Adams, “Of all the arts or sciences, none is more grateful than the art of reducing the Evils of Life.”

The Academy tried to follow Dearborn’s advice for the next two centuries, seeking ways to “reduce the evils of life.” Perhaps it is not surprising that the Academy’s most vigorous efforts to address income inequality coincided with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. In 1966, the Academy convened a series of seminars on “Understanding Poverty,” led by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a professor at Harvard. Moynihan organized interdisciplinary dialogues bringing together scholars and government officials to discuss the nature of poverty and its cultural and economic roots. The working groups focused on the effects education, racial discrimination, and segregation had on poverty. The seminars resulted in two influential publications in 1969 titled, On Understanding Poverty: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and On Fighting Poverty: Perspectives from Experience.

More recently, the Academy has been involved in an ongoing conversation within the legal field and among the broader public about the future of our court system. In 2008, the Academy published an issue of Dædalus entitled “On Judicial Independence,” with articles by Sandra Day O’Connor, Judith Resnik, and Margaret Marshall, which spoke to the importance of free and independent courts. In 2014, another issue, “The Invention of Courts,” edited by Judith Resnick and Linda Greenhouse, examined the nature of the courts and their relationship to what the editors call “the society we hope to be.” And next month, at a Stated Meeting at Georgetown University, our topic will be “The Crisis in Legal Education.” The program will focus on the important changes affecting the structure and mission of law schools, including some possible adjustments in training and emphasis that might help to address some of the issues we will discuss today.

Our symposium will therefore advance many of the ideas addressed in our recent work on the judicial system, just as it will re-examine many of the issues that Moynihan and his colleagues brought to light with their seminal work over forty years ago. But I suspect that the combination of these issues, and the diversity of the participants we have gathered together today, will yield many new insights as well. I hope that we will leave this conference with a clear understanding of our next steps. The Academy would like to be useful to all of you as we try to meet the difficult but critical challenge of ensuring justice for all Americans, regardless of their means.

So let us now proceed with the program, which I feel certain will reflect the vision of Academy founder James Bowdoin, who said, “It is the part of a patriot philosopher to pursue every hint—to cultivate every enquiry which may eventually tend to the security and welfare of his fellow citizens.”

It is now my pleasure to introduce the lead organizer of this symposium, John Levi. As most everyone here knows, John is the chair of the Legal Services Corporation, elected in 2010 after being appointed to the LSC board by President Obama. He is a partner at Sidley Austin in Chicago, specializing in corporate, employment and labor law. A full biography is included in your briefing books. We are all here today as a result of his hard work and passionate commitment to legal services. And if this meeting results in any positive change, it will be in no small part a result of his persistence and energetic leadership. Please join me in welcoming John Levi.

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