Attorney General Eric Holder was joined today by Senior Counselor for Access to Justice Mark Childress at a White House "Champions of Change" event to honor and recognize the work of legal leaders from communities large and small who are dedicating their professional lives to closing the justice gap in America. The event, co-sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, featured 16 leaders from across the country who were recognized for their work in public interest law and providing legal services to people throughout the country who cannot afford them.
"It's a privilege to be among so many remarkable individuals who -- because of their commitment to progress and to using their skills and talents to improve the lives of others -- have been designated by President Obama as Champions of Change," said Attorney General Holder. "Across the country, their work is allowing us to address and overcome our most pressing legal challenges and live up to our nation's highest ideals."
Students, professors, clinicians, pro bono directors and law librarians from 118 law schools nationwide submitted discussion questions and viewed the event via live-stream on the Internet. The discussion included conversations on issues such as how to pursue a career in public interest law; how best to assist disadvantaged members of society through legal knowledge and skills; and how to help specific segments of the population, such as tribal members, individuals facing foreclosure and those needing legal representation.
Recipients of the White House's "Champions of Change" honors are:
* Laura K . Abel is acting director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The Justice Program works to ensure that low-income families and people with limited proficiency in English can participate meaningfully in legal proceedings when they are facing criminal charges, domestic violence, eviction from their homes, the loss of subsistence benefits and other life-changing events.
* Todd Belcore is an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, focusing on litigating, organizing, educating and crafting legislation to ensure that individuals with criminal records are not unjustly denied employment or occupational licenses. Belcore is a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law, where he served as president of the public service organization SERV and, later, as the student bar association president. In these roles, he was able to significantly increase the amount of exposure law students had to public interest and public service.
* Martha Bergmark is the founding president/CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm created in 2002 to advance racial and economic justice. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the center mobilized unprecedented volunteer resources to meet the daunting legal needs of low-income hurricane survivors and to ensure an equitable recovery. In 2010, a landmark settlement of center litigation restored $132 million to housing recovery for hurricane survivors previously excluded from Mississippi's recovery programs. The center currently leads a five-state, 12-program consortium of legal aid providers representing victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster.
* Deb Ellis directs New York University (NYU) School of Law's Public Interest Law Center (PILC) and its Root-Tilden-Kern Scholarship Program for students committed to public interest careers, and is herself an NYU Law and Root alumna. Prior to leading PILC, Ellis had a distinguished public interest career, including legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, where she argued Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also served as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey and as a staff attorney at the ACLU Women's Rights Project and at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
* Paula S. Gómez and David G. Hall were recognized for their work in leading the Medico-Legal Partnership Rio Grande Valley, which is helping children and families in Brownsville, Texas, by integrating legal assistance into the medical setting. Gómez has served as the executive director of the Brownsville Community Health Center since 1984, a 17-provider community and migrant health center primarily situated in Brownsville with two school-based clinics and two other satellite clinics as well. These sites served almost 20,000 users and offered almost 90,000 patient visits last year. Hall is currently the executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. He has held this position since 1975 and, under his leadership, the organization has become the largest legal aid provider in Texas and third largest in the United States.
* Nan Heald has been the executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Portland, Maine, since 1990. Through the creative use of funding opportunities and other leveraged support, her leadership has enabled Pine Tree to strengthen and expand legal services to diverse client populations and in new areas of law, and to make justice more accessible for all the people of Maine.
* Lillian Johnson serves as the executive director of Community Legal Services, Arizona's largest nonprofit civil legal aid program. She has held this position since 1982, after relocating from the Chicago area, where she began her career in civil legal aid.
* Addison Parker was co-litigation director of Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky Inc. (AppalRed) and director of AppalRed's Stop Foreclosure Clinic until his retirement in June 2011 after 32 years of service. AppalRed provides free legal assistance to low income persons in 37 counties, located primarily in the Appalachian hill country of Eastern Kentucky.
* Michael Pinard is the director of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, one of the top-rated clinical programs in the country. With his colleague Sherrilyn Ifill, Professor Pinard co-founded the Reentry Clinic. This clinic focuses on identifying and easing the various obstacles that individuals with criminal records -- and, by extension, their families and communities -- confront during the reentry process and beyond.
* Deborah L. Rhode is the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession in Palo Alto, Calif. She is the author of more than 20 books and 200 articles, many focusing on access to justice, pro bono service and reforming the legal profession.
* Thomas A. Saenz is the president and general counsel of MALDEF , where he leads the civil rights organization's five offices in pursuing litigation, policy advocacy and community education to promote the civil rights of Latinos living in the United States.
* Brad Smith is Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president. He leads the company's Department of Legal and Corporate Affairs. He is being recognized as the co-chair, with actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, of the board of directors of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). KIND is a national organization dedicated to the facilitation of pro bono representation to the thousands of unaccompanied children who enter the United States alone each year to flee violence, human rights abuses, natural disasters, and economic deprivation. Just two and a half years into its operations, KIND has assisted more than 3,000 children and trained 3,200 pro bono attorneys in seven cities.
* David Stern has served for the last 19 years as executive director of Equal Justice Works in Washington, D.C., the nation's leading creator of public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers to help those in need. During his tenure, Stern has been the main motivator for expanding the organization's scope of services and has developed innovative programs that enable attorneys and law students to provide pro bono legal services to vulnerable populations, including families facing foreclosure, victims of domestic violence, immigrant communities, those struggling to access public services and targets of civil rights violations.
* Jo-Ann Wallace is the president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA). Recognizing the gap between rich and poor is greater than any time in our history, under her leadership NLADA will commemorate its centennial by launching a bold new strategy for changing justice in America: Blueprint for Justice: Rethink. Retool. Rebuild.
* Ron J. Whitener graduated from the University of Washington Law School in 1994, and worked as a tribal attorney for the Squaxin Island Tribe (of which he is a member) representing the tribal government in treaty rights defense, tribal governance, Indian health and tribal economic development. In 2000, he became director of the Northwest Indian Law Clinic at the UW Law School representing low-income Natives in criminal and civil cases. In 2002, he changed the clinic to the Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic, focused solely on training law students to practice public defense in tribal courts.
The White House Champions of Change program works to highlight ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things in their communities. Every week the White House will invite the Champions of Change to the White House to share their ideas to win the future. Beginning on Oct. 17, 2011, the legal leaders' individual stories will be highlighted at www.whitehouse.gov/champions . In addition, the website will include the Champions' blogs, as well as entries from each of the 118 participating law schools describing their commitment to public service.
The Access to Justice Initiative was launched by the Department of Justice in March 2010. The initiative seeks to ensure that the justice system is fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status, and that the justice system delivers fair outcomes efficiently. Its staff works within the department, across federal agencies, and with state, local and tribal justice system stakeholders to increase access to counsel and legal assistance, and for improvements to the justice delivery systems that serve people unable to afford lawyers. Additional information on the initiative is available at: www.justice.gov/atj .