Bill Would Restore DOJ Office Supporting Poor Communities

By Justin Wise | December 18, 2020, 8:36 PM EST

A pair of Democratic lawmakers on Friday introduced legislation to reestablish an office within the U.S. Department of Justice dedicated to serving marginalized communities in the criminal and civil legal system.

Introduced by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the bill would restore the DOJ's Access to Justice Office, which was set up in 2010 during the Obama administration before being closed in 2018 by President Donald Trump's Justice Department.

While President-elect Joe Biden has the opportunity to reestablish the office on his own, the bill is designed to permanently require the DOJ to provide the necessary funds and personnel for an office focused on issues including access to legal representation. The office was also formerly considered to be a leader in areas including court fines and fees and juvenile justice.

"The Office for Access to Justice was built on the principles of creating a fairer and more just criminal justice system by ensuring those most in need had the same access to legal aid as everyone else," Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "The Biden-Harris Administration must make this office a top agency priority."

The Biden transition team did not immediately return a request for comment from Law360.

If passed by both chambers of Congress, the ATJ office would provide legal and policy advice to the attorney general on matters pertaining to indigent populations and how they can be served by the legal system. It would also be charged with consulting with other divisions of the Justice Department to ensure funding and grantmaking decisions are taking into account access to justice issues.

In addition to those responsibilities, the office would head the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which unites different executive branch agencies to develop policy on criminal indigent defense and civil legal aid. The roundtable group has met just twice since the ATJ office was shuttered.

The Justice Department did not give a reason for the closing in 2018, but multiple Republican lawmakers claimed that it was a necessary step because of the office's actions funneling settlement money to third-party organizations. The Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment from Law360.

Legal Services Corporation President Ronald Flagg told Law360 in a phone interview Friday that civil legal aid lost an important voice when the Trump administration abandoned the ATJ office.

"[The office] really played an important role in raising federal agencies' awareness of how civil legal aid can help advance federal objectives across a wide range of areas," Flagg said, citing health care and housing.

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession caused by it has since placed even greater strain on groups working to support marginalized communities on matters like evictions and unemployment.

Maha Jweied, the last acting director of the ATJ, told Law360 in August that the health crisis exposed how critical the office was.

"The reality is that the federal government's response needs to be more holistic with respect to the legal needs of low-income and underrepresented people," she said. "Not having an office considering the issue of access to justice right now is a problem."

A collection of 40 organizations, including The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, wrote a letter to Congress earlier this week imploring them to consider the legislation. The letter noted that the office could help coordinate a federal response for the "tsunami of pandemic-related" legal issues millions of Americans are facing.

-- Additional reporting by RJ Vogt. Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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