Welcome to NLADA, the association at the center of America's
network of committed men and women working to ensure equal access to our
nation's justice system.
It has been said that visionary leaders not only have an eye on the horizon, they can see just behind it. Since assuming the presidency on July 1, 2005, I have been mindful that I am following in the very large footsteps of a leader whose incredible legacy has impacted every segment of the equal justice community. And I recognize that the privilege of standing on the shoulders of such giants is what enables me to see past the horizon.
I am proud of NLADA and the work we have done to make justice in our courtrooms and communities a reality for a growing number of people. But there is more to do. My sight is set on the day when everyone in America knows that “NLADA” is synonymous with “equal justice.” When there are well-funded civil legal aid and public defender delivery systems that provide high quality representation to clients and communities in every state and territory of our country. I see a time when every equal justice advocate – be they attorney, paralegal, social worker, or client – is clamoring to stand under our banner because they know we stand for justice – for all. When our cadre of ambassadors for justice is so strong that the question we ask at every annual meeting is not whether we can change our nation’s policies to benefit low-income persons, but which policy we will tackle next.
My vision of equal justice is grounded in serving low-income clients and communities. Understanding the role that public education played in my family’s escape from “the projects” made the educational disparities that I witnessed while working as a children’s advocate at Greater Boston Legal Services profoundly disturbing. In fact, helping the attorneys in a class action lawsuit force compliance with the special education statutes shaped my decision to become a lawyer.
As a public defender, I fought for people who were convicted of crimes not necessarily because they were guilty but because they were poor. I have represented children who were abused and neglected in group homes and shelters by their caregivers. I have navigated the Medicaid system to help a mother die with dignity. Thus, having made the decision to dedicate myself to the pursuit of justice some 25 years ago, I am well aware of the challenges we face in making justice a reality for all.
I know that it has been more than 40 years since the Supreme Court declared that people have a right to counsel when they face a loss of liberty due to criminal charges. Yet people are convicted everyday in courtrooms in this country without ever talking to a lawyer.
And I know that it has been over 30 years since the creation of the Legal Services Corporation evidenced our government’s recognition that an attorney is fundamental to the ability to access civil justice. Yet we know that by any measure, the great majority of individuals who are eligible to receive legal aid do not get it.
While “running the numbers” is alarming, the picture is even more sobering when we remember that every number represents a person with a face, and a name and a life story and a right to expect justice and decency in our democracy.
NLADA is an extraordinary organization facing extraordinary times. The equal justice community that comprises NLADA’s members is a collage of many different communities -- civil and defender, attorney, client and community advocates, substantive law specialists and generalists. While bound together through a single mission of promoting equal justice, each group has its own history, values and priorities. In the next several years, the delicate organizational balance that keeps the many stakeholders united under a single banner will be tested by circumstances that pose enormous opportunities for our members, while providing challenges for the Association. The Association will face a number of issues at a time when we will need to work aggressively with our members and partners so the brunt of the federal deficit and resulting changes in policies and resources is not born by individuals and communities who are least able to do so.
The diversity of our community is one of our great strengths. We are the largest and strongest cadre of ambassadors for equal justice that exists in this country and we have only begun to tap our total potential. Together, I know that we can create a future that is shaped by what unifies us, not by what divides us; a future that recognizes that justice and fairness and human dignity bridge rich and poor and black and white and red and blue; a future that rests on a new spirit of national unity; a future in which the quality of justice people receive in our courtrooms and their ability to access the arenas of opportunities in our communities such as housing, education and healthcare are not determined by the amount of money they have.
Each of us has a purpose in our journey through this time called life. My purpose, my passion, my peace, is to promote justice. It is a purpose that is grounded upon a deeply held belief in each person’s right to be treated fairly and decently -- to live and die with dignity. It is a passion that stays inflamed by images emblazoned in my mind of the travesties that I have seen people face in our courtrooms and in our communities because of their lack of access to resources, the color of their skin, and the language they speak. And it is a peace that comes with knowing at the end of each day’s work I have done what I can to move us closer to a just society.
I am honored to represent our membership and I am thrilled to have the privilege of building upon NLADA’s noble history as we co-labor to co-produce a justice-filled future for all in America.
Jo-Ann Wallace, Esq.