On July 8, 2014, the Washington Council of Lawyers sponsored a panel discussion at the D.C. Court of Appeals of Perspectives on Poverty Law from the Bench. The panel was moderated by Jack Keeney, Director of Legal Aid’s Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project, and included Chief Judge Eric T. Washington, Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, and Judge Inez Smith Reid. The panelists focused their discussion on how poverty impacts the justice system, approaches to securing access to justice, and their perspectives on public interest careers.
The conversation began with the judges evaluating D.C.’s efforts to improve access to justice for all residents. Chief Judge Washington explained that it is a “complicated” issue: because so many individuals in D.C. live in extreme poverty, despite positive steps being taken, the unmet need remains dramatic. Judge Blackburne-Rigsby explained that in her mind, access to justice means “making justice real” for all D.C. residents, including many middle class families who have been negatively impacted by the economic downturn and have an acute need for free or affordable civil legal services. All the judges emphasized that the efforts of attorneys working both in public interest careers and in the private sector are needed to fill the legal services gap in the district. Judge Reid said that, in particular, public funding and contributions from private firms—of both time and money—are critical to meeting D.C.’s access to justice needs. Chief Judge Washington expressed the ideal as “civil Gideon,” but acknowledged that a more modest approach is more realistic.
The judges also shared experiences from the time each spent in the Office of the Corporation Counsel (now the Office of the Attorney General). Judge Blackburne-Rigsby described her time in the office as “exciting” because of the tangible impact an attorney there could have on D.C. families. Judge Reid explained that after she found herself looking for a new job due to a change in administration, she decided that she wanted to work in the Office of the Corporation Counsel, and proceeded to walk in off the street, drop off her resume, and work her way up from a staff attorney to the Corporation Counsel.
The event concluded with the judges responding to several questions from the audience. They encouraged prospective law students to take the plunge because practicing law is a rewarding career with many options, but urged them to pursue a legal career because they really enjoyed it. Chief Judge Washington encouraged young lawyers to not be afraid to get out of their comfort zone and take chances, as that is often when opportunities arise.
We thank the Washington Council of Lawyers for organizing this great event and Chief Judge Washington, Judge Blackburne-Rigsby, and Judge Reid for generously sharing their time.