The Texas Access to Justice Commission, along with its co-sponsor, the State Bar of Texas, raised $485,000 to help provide civil legal services to low-income Texas veterans during the Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans on April 25 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. Proceeds from the gala will be distributed by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, or TAJF.

Supreme Court of Texas Justice and TAJF liaison Brett Busby served as the master of ceremonies for the evening. He emphasized how civil legal issues can impact veterans and the many ways they can benefit from legal assistance. Busby also presented the 2023 James B. Sales Boots on the Ground Award to Victor L. Hunt, of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, and Maureen O’Connell, of Disability Rights Texas; the 2023 Harry M. Reasoner Justice for All Award to Thomas S. Leatherbury, director of SMU Dedman School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic; and the 2023 Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award to TAJF Executive Director Betty Balli Torres.

A dedicated public servant for four decades, Hunt’s career has involved providing direct legal representation to low-income clients. His work in Oklahoma helped the mentally disabled integrate into society, and his work with homeless communities helped individuals overcome barriers that historically reinforce homelessness. O’Connell helped found, and later served as director of, the Southern Disability Law Center, an organization whose work benefits individuals in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Leatherbury has spent his career defending the constitutional rights of his fellow citizens, frequently doing so on a pro bono basis. Torres has served as the executive director of the TAJF since 2001 and has been instrumental in ensuring funding for legal aid throughout that span, especially in times of economic distress when the public’s need for legal aid increases as funding become scarce.

This year’s “Macey and Harry Reasoner Access to Justice Lecture Series” featured Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht, who has long been at the forefront of access to justice efforts in Texas. A veteran himself, Hecht spoke about the importance of a justice system that is accessible and available to assist veterans in need. Illustrating his point were a pair of veterans, joined by the legal aid professionals who helped them, who recounted their own experiences navigating the justice system and the impact legal aid had in helping them solve their legal problems.

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