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Speech  SJC Chief Justice Gants Remarks Delivered at 21st Annual Walk to the Hill at the Massachusetts State House (January 30, 2020)

  • Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

BOSTON, MAI bring you good news and bad news. The good news is that the Legislature in the past few years has been great to MLAC; between fiscal years 2018 and 2020, the Legislature has substantially increased the amount appropriated to MLAC. So, when you meet later today with legislators and staff, the first thing you should say to them is "Thank you". We are blessed with a Legislature that knows the importance of civil legal aid to this Commonwealth and has acted on that knowledge. Our legislators "get it."

The other good news is that MLAC has put that increased funding to good use. The many projects it has created with the new funding include:

  • expanding the ability of civil legal aid providers to provide individual representation to public school students who face expulsion or suspension, or who were denied the individualized education placement they need to succeed in school;
  • providing greater assistance to released prisoners whose criminal record is hindering their efforts to get past their past, so that they can obtain housing, employment, and the licenses they need to work; and
  • supporting mothers and their children who have been released from ICE detention and are seeking asylum in this country.

And, for the first time in years, the percentage of eligible persons that legal services must turn away for lack of resources has dropped, from 64 percent in FY18 to 57 percent in FY19.

But that good news is also the bad news, because it means that legal services still is turning away more than half of the eligible persons who come to them seeking legal assistance.

And that is not all the bad news. Last fiscal year, nearly one-third of all legal aid cases were housing cases -- homeowners fighting foreclosure and tenants fighting eviction. And the number of these cases is rising because, last I looked, rents are not getting any cheaper, and gentrification is not slowing.

Veterans are still serving in foreign wars and leaving military service with a variety of legal issues that are made more difficult by the PTSD and traumatic brain injuries they suffered in protecting our nation.

The elderly population continues to grow, as does the number of their legal issues involving elder abuse, MassHealth coverage for nursing home care, protection for those with dementia and Alzheimer's, bankruptcy for those whose lives lasted longer than their savings, and eviction for those with mental health issues manifested by compulsive hoarding. Seniors, that is, those 60 years of age and older, currently comprise 24 percent of the legal services client caseload; that share will only grow in the coming years.

And then there is the non-citizen immigrant population, documented and undocumented, which comprises roughly eight percent of Massachusetts residents -- about 550,000 persons. With the United States Supreme Court earlier this week lifting the preliminary injunction that stayed implementation of the Trump Administration's public charge rule, the Federal government might deny green cards to some immigrants who receive public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers.  How many of our non-citizen residents will now question whether they should apply for MassHealth so they can obtain the insulin and heart medication they need to protect their health, or seek SNAP benefits to provide proper nutrition to their children, or apply for housing vouchers so they might live in decent housing? And who do you think they will turn to for answers to those questions? Legal services. Who do we count on to be there to protect those who are most vulnerable? Legal services. Who will fight for civil, economic, and human rights for those who may not even know they have those rights? Legal services.

So MLAC is asking for $29 million this year, $5 million over last year's appropriation. Not nearly enough money to address all the bad news we can expect in FY21. But enough to help make the news less bad.  $29 million -- roughly $4.20 for every resident in Massachusetts. That is less than the price of one Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich at Dunkin Donuts. Is it too much to ask every resident of this Commonwealth to forego one meatless sausage sandwich to improve access to civil legal services for our brothers and sisters in need?

And remember that a dollar devoted to legal aid is not merely an investment in justice; it has also been proven to be a sound economic investment that returns roughly between $2 and $5 dollars to the Commonwealth for each dollar spent. Rarely do we get so clear an opportunity to do well by doing good.

When you speak this afternoon to legislators and staff, you speak not for yourselves, but for all those who have neither money nor power, but who might have the law on their side, if only they knew how to use it. Feel their hand on your shoulder. Speak their truth.

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