The National Legal Aid & Defender Association, or NLADA, honored and featured several notable Texans at its annual conference at the Westin Galleria in Houston in November. The event celebrates, advocates for, and educates on access to justice, bringing together legal aid and indigent defense lawyers from across the U.S.
“It’s an opportunity for us to celebrate the work that we do but more importantly to learn from each other,” said Texas Access to Justice Foundation Executive Director Betty Balli Torres, who co-chaired the conference. “We are so proud that NLADA chose to have their conference in Houston. It was very intentional. They wanted to come to a city that really exemplified resilience, and we all know that last year, Houston had to deal with Hurricane Harvey and, frankly, continues to have to deal with the aftermath.”
Since its formation in 1911, the NLADA has created public defense systems and has advocated for civil legal aid and public defender services. Its annual conferences bring together legal aid providers from across the country that attend CLE sessions on access to justice and learn from guest speakers how to tackle different roadblocks to helping people in need of legal representation.
This year’s location in Houston was especially poignant, given the yearlong legal aid efforts since Hurricane Harvey hit the city and the Texas Gulf Coast. Saundra Brown, who is Lone Star Legal Aid’s directing attorney of its disaster legal services, received the Reginald Heber Smith Award during the conference’s award ceremony for her disaster relief work in the region post-Harvey.
In the wake of Harvey, Brown was something of a spokesperson for Lone Star, being quoted in the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker on the importance of Texans registering for Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, aid, as well as relaying the organization’s efforts in training attorneys across Houston, visiting shelters, and helping people with issues regarding FEMA.
“We’ve continued and are doing different kinds of cases now, still all related to disaster,” Brown told the Texas Bar Journal before receiving her award. “The recovery’s longtime legal needs will probably exist for 10 years after any given disaster.”
Each year, the conference has a theme: this year’s was “resilient justice,” which translates to progress toward equal justice in the face of challenges to the country’s bedrock principles of fairness and equality, according to the event guide. Sessions fit the theme with titles like “Another Brick in the Wall: Education Rights of Immigrant and Refugee Students in Times of Uncertainty” and “Jail Is Not the Solution: Innovative Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness.”
Jo-Ann Wallace, president and CEO of the NLADA, pointed to headlines of the day as part of why legal aid and indigent defense are so important.“I think that many people are very concerned about some of the directions our country is headed in right now,” she said. “For example, we see a rise in hate crimes—but at the same time there’s amazing work being done in civil and criminal justice reform. Advocates and other equal justice leaders are [making sure] every day that our system and our country and justice system are more fair.”
Award recipients and guest speakers who do just that reflect the conference theme. Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht, who received the Equal Justice Ambassador Award, was touted by Wallace for helping to shape policies addressing pressing issues for low-income defendants, including expanded screening for those with mental illness and limited fines and fees in criminal cases.
Hecht, who later gave credit to the court, mused on his own definition of resilient justice.
“There are lots of challenges we have today in Texas and throughout the country in making legal resources available to everyone,” Hecht told the Texas Bar Journal before accepting his award. “As I’ve said many times before, justice for only those who can afford it is neither justice for all nor justice at all. So resilient justice is that quality of justice we want to see to address the challenges we have today and overcome them.”
During the ceremony, Hecht said it’s the Supreme Court and National Conference of Chief Justices, of which he is first vice president, that works hard to support pro bono programs and legal aid providers, as well as demonstrate to the Legislature and Congress the need for public financial support for expanding access to justice.
Guest speakers at the NLADA conference included keynote Rodney Ellis, former Texas senator and current Harris County commissioner. During his tenure in the Senate, Ellis authored or sponsored legislation centered on indigent defense that dealt with compensation and group health benefits coverage for people who were wrongfully imprisoned; and the Texas Fair Defense Act, which required Texas criminal courts to adopt procedures for providing legal representation for indigent defendants.
During his keynote address, Ellis encouraged attendees to become more active in politics by developing partnerships with prosecutors, sheriffs, county officials, and state officials in order to “move the needle” on reforms they’re interested in. He also urged them to run for some of those same offices, including for state legislator, judge, or commissioner.
“In my years in politics, I found oftentimes that people who really understand the system best have a reluctance to really get involved and try to make a difference on the elected side,” Ellis told the Texas Bar Journal.
Alex Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender and a member of the conference’s planning committee, coordinated Ellis’ spot as the keynote speaker. Bunin said he enjoyed the keynote address. He also emphasized the importance of defenders and legal aid lawyers talking about their shared issues—in his line of work, he does what he calls ‘holistic defense,’ in which he doesn’t just represent clients in their criminal cases but also works with them on other issues in their lives such as eviction or immigration.
“Even though we aren’t personally specialists in those areas, we know we need to work with those lawyers who do that work to help our clients,” Bunin said. “A lot of the times, that’s what brings them into the criminal justice system. We call them ‘collateral consequences.’ But really it’s just about life when you’re poor. Those are the kinds of things that are important that NLADA addresses.”
Judge Lora Livingston, of the 261st Civil District Court in Travis County and a liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, co-chaired the conference. She has spent much of her legal career focused on legal aid. Early on, Livingston was a Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellow with the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas, with an emphasis on poverty law, and later family law with Livingston & Parr before becoming a judge in 1995.
Livingston called the event a great way to network with other people interested in access to justice on both the civil and criminal sides. In particular, she was impressed with the NLADA’s focus on public-private partnerships.
“I really believe that what we in the public sector do can be made better—more efficient—and can be greatly improved by our partnership with those in the private sector and by the recognition that their partnership with those of us in the public sector is really an exciting opportunity for both groups,” Livingston said.
Robert Doggett, of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, took over as the executive director after 42-year director David Hall retired in 2017. He called Hall an icon in the legal aid community, saying he is doing his best to continue the former director’s programming. The NLADA conference, Doggett, said is another way to get fresh ideas for innovative litigation in order to bring more justice to impoverished Texans.
“There are so many different people from across the country doing amazing things,” he said. “Sometimes you get lost in your own bubble and your own local activities, and stopping to hear what other people are doing in other parts of the country is a wonderful way to be exposed to some of the great innovative ideas they’ve got.”
For more information about the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, go to nlada.org.