President Joe Biden issued an executive order Tuesday that moves to revive a government office focused on access-to-justice issues.
The order directs Attorney General Merrick Garland to report within 120 days on the possibility of bringing back the Justice Department office. The office, established in 2010, was made dormant soon after President Donald Trump took office.
“The DOJ has a critical role to play in improving the justice delivery systems that serve people who cannot afford lawyers,” Biden wrote in the order. “I am committed to reinvigorating that work.”
The order follows a push after Biden’s election to reinstate the office. In a December letter, the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers joined 46 other groups urging the president-elect’s transition team to bring back the operation.
The access-to-justice office as it functioned under Obama worked to make legal services more available for low-income Americans. The effort included work to increase funding for state-level court programs, and filing legal briefs on right-to-counsel and related cases.
Republicans criticized the office by claiming it unnecessarily duplicated the work of legal aid groups.
Biden ordered Garland to consider expanding Justice’s “planning, development, and coordination of access-to-justice policy initiatives.” Those include criminal indigent defense, civil legal aid, and pro bono legal services.
According to a fact sheet connected to the executive order, “the Justice Department will start this work immediately.”
The order also revives the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, known as LAIR, which coordinates the work of federal programs with civil legal aid groups. LAIR began its work in 2012 and President Barack Obama formally established it three years later. But the office withered in recent years, several former Obama-era Justice Department officials have said.
“The timing is perfect for this exciting Biden-Harris administration leadership move,” said Karen Lash, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Civil justice problems are threaded throughout the most pressing problems for so many people, including housing stability, access to health care, obstacles to getting people back to work, and so much more.”