A re-booted Justice Department office that aims to expand legal services for people who can’t afford lawyers is working to ensure its survival after being defunded under President Donald Trump.
The Office for Access to Justice is reaching out to potential allies and spreading the word about its impact while seeing hope in legislation that would make the operation permanent, said Rachel Rossi, the office’s director.
“Longevity of this work is critical,” Rossi said in an interview. “We can’t be the office that is here four years and gone four years.”
President Barack Obama’s administration established the office in 2010 as part of an access-to-justice push. Under its first leader, Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, the office worked to increase funding for state access-to-court programs and filed legal briefs on asset seizure and right-to-counsel cases.
Trump after his election effectively shuttered the office. Republicans criticized the operation as duplicating the work of legal aid groups and directing dollars to favored advocacy organizations.
Soon after President Joe Biden’s election in 2020, advocates with more than 45 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, lobbied administration officials to revive the office.
Rossi, a former public defender, deputy associate attorney general and 2020 candidate for Los Angeles County District Attorney, has bulked up the office to 19 people, including seven attorneys. The office plans to hire eight more attorneys in the next two months.
“We were blown away by the level of interest” when the office posted for attorney positions, Rossi said. “There was a starvation for this office after it shut down.”
The office oversees the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which brings together staff at about 30 federal agencies to work on legal aid and indigent defense issues.
The office has also re-launched Justice’s Language Access Working Group to help ensure non-English speakers can connect with department programs. Rossi’s team partnered with Justice’s Civil Rights Division to issue a statement of interest in a vehicle seizure case in Alabama.
The Biden administration moved the Federal Government Pro Bono program to the purview of Rossi’s office and added a second staff member to the unit. The pro bono program vets for conflicts of interest when government lawyers aim to take pro bono cases.
Rossi said she would like to see Big Law firms increase pro bono efforts though noted that Justice must “walk a careful line” regarding partnerships with outside law firms it may litigate against.
Those pleased to see the office resuscitated include lawyers around the country that seek to allow non-attorneys to own legal operations and compete with existing law firms.
In recent years, Arizona scrapped its rule mandating that only lawyers can own legal operations, and Utah set up a program to license and collect data on non-lawyer-owned legal service providers, to test whether consumers would benefit.
At its core, reform proponents say, non-lawyer ownership is an access-to-justice issue because it allows consumers to benefit from lower prices and new technologies for basic legal services.
Rossi, who has been in her Access to Justice post since May, said she traveled to Utah in October to discuss that state’s regulatory experiment. She said she also plans to visit Arizona.
Rossi said she isn’t yet prepared to take a position on whether her office is ready to actively support the efforts of those states and several others weighing whether to make similar rule changes.
“This is a big issue, it’s going to continue to be a big issue,” she said. Her office is in an information gathering role for now, Rossi said.
Her office is trying to find the “best lane” for Justice and the administration to take as the issue moves forward, she said.
As for the Office for Access to Justice, Rossi said now is the time to make it work for the long haul. She expressed hope in a bill called the Office for Access to Justice Establishment Act, which would make the office permanent.
“There’s a lot of support internally across the building but also externally to grow the work and to make it permanent,” she said.
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