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Jurists: Michigan must provide equal justice

Justices Robert Young and Bridget McCormack

‘Equal justice under law” is engraved above the doors to the United States Supreme Court and the words provide the bedrock of our judicial system. But those words might mean little to a family facing eviction or foreclosure who cannot afford a lawyer.

That’s why the support of the federal Legal Services Corp. (LSC) is so important in helping local nonprofits provide quality legal advice to our elderly and veterans, to protect victims of family violence, to defend victims of consumer scams, and to assist people in need of medical care or food assistance.

Just as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged at a recent 40th anniversary celebration for LSC in Washington, D.C., “LSC pursues the most fundamental of American values,” we commend the vital role Michigan’s local legal aid programs play in our system of justice.

We also believe that a fundamental goal of our legal system is that all Michigan residents have access to the court system regardless of their ability to pay. While the two sides in a dispute have competing interests, they share a common goal with us as well: justice under law.

Judges will be the first to tell you that our system works best — and justice is better served — when both parties are represented and have access to quality legal services.

The first Michigan program to provide legal help to the poor, the Legal Aid and Defender Association of Detroit, was launched over 100 years ago. Today, Michigan’s legal aid fabric is made up of five large regional programs funded by LSC (these programs provide general legal services across relatively large regions) and about 40 smaller specialty programs that provide assistance in a specific case area, directed to a specific population, or within a smaller geographic area.

Every day, low-income Michiganians seek help from these programs in matters that go to the very heart of the safety and security of their families. Today’s legal aid programs are well-respected professional law offices that help more than 50,000 Michigan residents each year.

The legal aid system has also been a leader in delivering legal services in cost-effective and innovative ways. Intake telephone hotlines and online services such as provide quality assistance to people who want to represent themselves and have helped courts accomplish more with less. The LSC has encouraged local grantees to do more with less by organizing private lawyers to provide free legal services and through innovative technology.

As LSC rightfully celebrates 40 years of service to America, we extend our congratulations and convey our gratitude for the financial support and leadership that LSC has provided both in Michigan and across the country.

This is also a time for all of us to renew our commitment to the core value that the LSC program embodies: access to justice for all. With a continuing commitment from government, the courts, lawyers, judges, and the public, our country’s promise of justice, whether engraved in stone or pledged in the first line of the U.S. Constitution, can be made real to all Americans.

Robert Young is Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Bridget McCormack is a Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court.