Lonnie Powers, the founding Executive Director of MLAC, is the 2018 recipient of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation’s Great Friend of Justice Award.
March 7, 2018
“Thank you for recognizing me as a Great Friend of Justice. It is a wonderful honor that causes me to remember all the Great Friends of Justice that I have been privileged to know since coming to Massachusetts – Friends who have led me, taught me and shown me what it means to live a life dedicated to Justice.
For a moment let us pause to remember our own list of such Friends – so many who walked that path toward a more just Commonwealth but who are not here to continue the journey with us. So many who have pointed the way for us to follow.
Thank you. Remembering them and their examples has caused me to reflect on what Justice means to me and why it is and has been so important.
Much research and our own lived experiences have shown that children have an innate sense of fairness. That desire for fairness, for everyone to be treated well, is probably the foundation of justice.
But in a world of more than seven billion people on this planet, we can hardly rely on an inchoate sense of what is fair for one or a small number of people to guide a complex society.
The law can also be used unjustly – to foster oppression and injustice as well as to foster fairness and justice. That is a lesson we have to learn and relearn so that we are eternally vigilant to push against the misuse of the law.
Growing up in the South in the 50s and 60s, I saw, or could have seen more clearly had I been willing to look, how the law could be and was used to subjugate one group of people because of the color of their skin. How the law could be and was used to steal from renters and share croppers like my grandfather the money they earned by endless hours of backbreaking toil and to deny them any redress.
Massachusetts has long recognized the moral basis of justice. Our Supreme Judicial Court was, in just one example, the first court in this country to declare slavery forbidden by the Constitution of the Commonwealth. But lest we get too complacent, remember that that same Court approved the segregation of the Boston Public Schools.
Having a moral basis for justice does not ensure that injustice will not continue; all around us, there are ample examples of injustice, of the failure to live up to the fairness justice requires.
To be reminded one has only to pause when walking toward the public entrance to the State House to gaze on the seated figure of Mary Dyer, who was hung on Boston Common because she refused to be silent about her religious faith, or look at the painting of Chief Justice William Stoughton in the House Chamber as he publicly repented of his role in convicting innocent girls and women of witchcraft.
Those public examples from the past are echoed in the economic disparity that is ever more visible all around us, in the bodies of the dead black men and women who have been the victims of those sworn to enforce the law and in the divisive public policies espoused by many people in high public office – policies and pronouncements that exacerbate economic disparity and social tensions.
What then to do in the face of such bleakness? As lawyers, as those who love justice, we can strive every day to use the levers the law gives us to right the balance of power in favor of fairness, while realizing that this is a struggle from which we cannot rest; for the forces of opposition are strong and ever striving to tip the balance in their favor.
There is something more we can do – something more personal – something that all the great religious faiths teach: to love one another and to live out that love.
One of the core commandments of Judaism is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
“You will not enter paradise until you have faith, and you will not complete your faith until you love one another.” (Prophet Muhammad)
“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” (Buddha)
We all have our favorite or most meaningful expressions of that central truth. For me it is the parable attributed to Jesus of the Good Samaritan who found a man by the side of the road, robbed, beaten and bleeding. It is important that he took the man to an inn and paid for his food and care instead of passing him by. Most important is that he got down, down off his horse, down on the ground by the dirty, bleeding man whom he had never seen before and picked him up. That act of love, of compassion, says more about how we must live as champions of justice than any amount of money The Samaritan may have paid to have the man cared for.
I am humbled and so very grateful to be called a Great Friend of Justice in this company, in the memory of so many who have done so much for Justice before us.
Thank you – let us be about our business of seeking Justice.”
This post first appeared on WGBH News.
By Jacquelynne Bowman and Lonnie Powers
Five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the situation on the island remains dire, and states throughout the nation have welcomed Puerto Rican refugees—who are U.S. citizens—to the mainland. Here in Massachusetts, several thousand Puerto Ricans have sought refuge with friends and relatives, mostly in Springfield, New Bedford, Worcester, and Boston. Massachusetts public schools have already enrolled approximately 2,000 students from the hurricane-ravaged island. In his state of the Commonwealth address this week, Governor Charlie Baker said that state agencies are working to streamline services for thousands of Puerto Rican residents as they settle in Massachusetts. And he has previously said that Puerto Rican refugees would be in need of “financial assistance, housing, health care, jobs or reunification services.”
These new residents will also require civil legal assistance. Civil legal aid attorneys have long played a critical role in helping people recover from natural disasters. They accelerate the recovery process for people with limited financial resources by helping them resolve housing issues, replace important legal identification papers, make insurance claims, apply for FEMA benefits, combat contractor scams that often proliferate in the aftermath of widespread property destruction, and deal with other unforeseen legal matters that surface in chaotic times. Even child custody issues can arise if a parent is forced to seek safety far from their storm-damaged residence.
That’s why the Louisiana Civil Justice Center (LCJC), an organization founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to provide disaster legal aid to its victims, sprang into action last September after Hurricane Irma lashed the Virgin Islands, followed shortly thereafter by Hurricane Maria’s wrath. In partnership with FEMA and the American Bar Association, LCJC deployed its disaster legal hotline as a central intake point for hurricane victims to receive legal information and referrals to appropriate agencies and legal advocates.
“The devastation in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is likely to be a Katrina-level event,” said LCJC Executive Director Jonathan Rhodes in announcing the plan. “Of the many lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, we know the value of legal assistance as survivors rebuild homes and communities.”
This burgeoning need was very much on the minds of attorneys lobbying the state legislature a few weeks ago for increased investment in civil legal aid. Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court addressed over 650 attorneys at the State House before they fanned out to meet with lawmakers, and reminded them of the increased burden on civil legal aid programs that will be assisting numerous Hurricane Maria refugees.
As civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts rise to meet the needs of Hurricane Maria refugees, they do so on top of existing needs among some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents. Civil legal aid programs help people avoid homelessness and unemployment, gain access to health care and veterans’ services, receive a quality education, and escape domestic violence. Currently, lack of funding forces civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts to turn away approximately 65 percent of eligible residents who seek services—nearly 45,000 people each year. To be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have incomes at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is $31,375 a year for a family of four.
The work of legal aid programs does not just benefit clients. The return on the state’s investment in civil legal assistance is high. In fiscal year 2016, new revenue for legal aid clients and cost savings to the Commonwealth from legal aid work totaled an estimated $49.2 million, of which $15.9 million was in the form of new federal revenue.
But that’s not why we should invest more in civil legal aid. As Gants also reminded us on Thursday, the best way to judge a society is by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Those who are eligible for civil legal aid, among them Hurricane Maria refugees, are among our most vulnerable neighbors and we should be giving them all the help they need.
Lonnie Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Jacquelynne Bowman is the Executive Director of Greater Boston Legal Services.
BOSTON, January 25, 2017―Today, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker released his FY2018 budget with a recommendation to fund civil legal aid at $18,180,000 in FY2018. This is a one percent increase over the amount that civil legal aid was funded in FY2017.
We are pleased that Gov. Baker recognizes the role that civil legal aid funding plays in promoting equal access to justice for low-income residents of the Commonwealth. We are grateful for his support, particularly when proposals have been put forward in Washington DC that would eliminate the Legal Services Corporation, which provides funding to civil legal aid organizations in every state including Massachusetts.
Given the great depth of unmet need among those seeking civil legal aid, and the significant return on investment yielded by civil legal aid funding, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) will continue to advocate for a $5 million increase, for a total appropriation of $23 million.
Tomorrow, Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court, Boston Bar Association President Carol A. Starkey, and Massachusetts Bar Association President Jeffrey N. Catalano will join hundreds of private attorneys from more than 40 law firms at the Massachusetts State House for the 18th Annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Attendees of this annual lobby day, one of the largest held at the State House each year, will request a $5 million increase in state funding for MLAC, which disburses the state’s civil legal aid funding to 14 civil legal aid programs across the state.
“Civil legal aid is a key part of efforts to provide justice in Massachusetts. It helps the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents avoid homelessness and unemployment, gain access to health care and veterans’ services, receive a quality education, and escape domestic violence,” said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC). “State investment in civil legal aid is critical to the success of these efforts, and with a return of between $2.50 and $5 for every dollar the Commonwealth spends, it is a smart investment.”
The request for a $5 million increase in civil legal aid funding is based on a recommendation by the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, whose research determined civil legal aid is unavailable to the majority of qualified residents who seek it. The Task Force’s report, issued in 2014, demonstrated that civil legal aid programs are forced to turn away 64% of the income-eligible residents (at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Level, or $30,375 a year for a family of four) who request help with a legal problem for which legal aid could provide assistance.
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that low-income people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice and representation. MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts.