by Rob Crain
One of the best perks of serving on the DBA’s Board of Directors is we occasionally have the opportunity to speak at naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. Citizens. This is one of the most humbling and prideful ceremonies you will ever witness in connection with our Constitution. Thanks to the U.S. Northern District’s Chief Judge, Barbara Lynn, the DBA will host its first Naturalization Ceremony on June 29 at 11:30 a.m. at the Belo Mansion—please mark your calendar.
When I speak at these ceremonies, I often reference Shakespeare’s famous line from his play, Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It usually elicits a few laughs, but it also provides the context for educating the audience about the importance of the Rule of Law and the role of lawyers. Shakespeare’s point is that lawyers are the protectors of the rule of law. In the play, the line is spoken by a co-conspirator planning to overthrow the English government. The idea is that if the conspirators get rid of the lawyers, the protectors of the rule of law are removed and the overthrow can commence with ease.
There are several moments in our history I personally relate to this quote: John Adams’ famous representation of British soldiers; former DBA President Louis Nichols offering representation to Lee Harvey Oswald (if you have not seen Louis’ interview after meeting with Oswald, google it; you will be proud); as well as a number of moments in recent history when lawyers volunteered to represent terrorists—Timothy McVeigh’s representation by Oklahoma attorney Stephen Jones, and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad’s representation by Idaho attorney David Nevin. All of these lawyers took risks to maintain the integrity of our Constitution and laws.
These examples are criminal matters, and as we all know, individuals charged with serious crimes have the right to an attorney regardless of whether they can afford an attorney. Protecting the rights of individuals in civil matters is just as important for the health and fabric of our nation. The 7th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, as well as many state constitutions, codifies the right to jury trials in many civil cases. James Madison stated that “trial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature.” Unfortunately, many U.S. residents cannot afford an attorney to access this fundamental right.
There are thousands of North Texans struggling with serious civil matters who are unable to traverse the legal system: husbands and wives in abusive relationships who cannot get protections or a simple divorce, tenants who are mistreated by unethical landlords, hardworking individuals who are being financially crushed by unscrupulous lenders engaging in usury, real property interest holders who are taken advantage of due to disparate bargaining positions. On any day, you can go to the library at the George L. Allen, Sr. Courthouse and find 50 people trying to navigate their civil legal problems without an attorney. Most of them are confused, frustrated, and losing hope. Most of them cannot afford an attorney.
In the early 1980s, Judge Merrill Hartman started a free legal clinic at his Church, Lake Highlands United Methodist Church. His efforts were the building blocks for the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP). For Judge Hartman, “Justice for All” was not just a slogan, it meant access to the courts started with access to a lawyer. DVAP recruits, trains, and supports volunteer attorneys to provide free, civil legal help to low-income people in Dallas County. DVAP volunteers provide advice and full representation in a variety of cases, including family, housing, landlord tenant, real property, consumer, wills, expunctions and non-disclosures, probate, and more.
Last year, DVAP opened 4,414 new cases. Nearly 600 attorneys volunteered their time. These attorneys are the unsung heroes of our profession. They give their time and service to strangers. They make us safer. They hold the unscrupulous accountable. They remove obstacles of progress. They improve the quality of life for our community. They are protectors of the Rule of Law.
For those who would like to volunteer, please contact Michelle Alden at (214) 243-2234. This is also an excellent opportunity for young lawyers to get experience. The types of cases are diverse and range from the simple to the complex. Mentors are available to assist. For those who do not want to take on a case there are also opportunities to volunteer at one-day clinics.
Funding for DVAP comes from multiple sources, including funds raised by our Equal Access to Justice Campaign. Last year’s Co-Chairs, David Kent and Karen McCloud, raised a record amount of $1,100,415. DVAP also relies on grants from the state-funded Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) and the federally-funded Legal Services Corporation (LSC).
Thanks to the campaign, DVAP relies on TAJF and LSC on a more limited basis. Most other legal aid organizations across the state and country rely heavily on these two entities.
Unfortunately, this year’s proposed budget from the Texas Senate zeroed out TAJF funding and the Texas State House of Representatives reduced the $20 Million line-item for TAJF to $10 million. Likewise, President Trump’s proposed budget eliminates all federal funding for LSC, approximately $375 million. If the current budgets are approved, most legal aid organizations across the state and country will disappear or be greatly diminished. An entire segment of our population will be denied access to our justice system.
Nathan Hecht, Chief Judge of the Texas Supreme Court, is an ardent supporter of funding for legal aid. In a recent Texas Lawyer article he notes there are approximately 5.6 million Texans who qualify for legal aid. He references studies showing the economic benefits of helping people deal with their legal problems, “and get on their feet” to be productive. He is reaching out to the White House and Congress to express his support for legal aid.
People seeking help from legal aid are the individuals trying to improve their lives. There are many among us who need our help.
Thank you to all of you who donate your talents, time, and money to lift up our brothers and sisters in need.