Kermit V. Lipez


From January 2001 to January 2008, I had the privilege of serving as the Chair of Maine’s Justice Action Group. In the legal services world, the Justice Action Group is known as an “Access to Justice” entity. Most states have such entities. Although the missions of these entities may vary somewhat from state to state, they share the same general goals—to increase the resources available to the organizations providing free or reduced fee legal services to low income, disadvantaged, and elderly citizens, and to maximize the use of these resources through coordinated efforts. In Maine, the Justice Action Group, or JAG as we affectionately call it, has no formal legal status. Instead, it is a group of individuals drawn from organizations important to the access to justice enterprise, and from the three branches of state government. I did not become the Chair of JAG through a democratic process. Instead, the incomparable Judge Frank Coffin, who sadly passed away last December at the age of 90, asked me to succeed him. Along with former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Judge Coffin had created JAG in 1995 in response to a crisis in the legal services world in the wake of the mid-term congressional elections of 1994. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America had promised deep cuts in federal funding for legal services programs and statutory restrictions on the law reform work that the legal services providers could do. To deal with this crisis, Chief Justice Wathen convened a Fall Forum on the Future of Legal Services, a conference of public officials, leaders of the bar, and legal services attorneys. The Chief Justice asked Judge Coffin to play a leading role in the conference and its aftermath, which included the establishment of JAG. Although most of the individuals in need of free legal services deal with state law issues, Judge Coffin believed that the federal and state judiciaries shared an obligation to address access to justice issues. Hence JAG began as a federal-state partnership. To preserve that model, Judge Coffin asked me to succeed him as Chair of JAG and Justice Howard Dana of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to serve as the Vice-Chair. I am grateful to Judge Coffin for that invitation. During my seven years as Chair of JAG, I had the pleasure of working with dozens of talented, dedicated individuals who devoted countless hours to the access to justice cause. I write this Article in part as a tribute to them—the executive directors and board members of the legal services providers, the executive directors and board members of the Maine Bar Foundation and the Maine State Bar Association, the University of Maine Law School faculty members, and the judges and lawyers who served so ably on committees and task forces grappling with access to justice issues. Although I cannot begin to name all of the individuals involved in these efforts, they deserve some memorialization of work that was important to the evolution of legal services programs in Maine. The people of Maine, both within the legal community and without, also should know more about JAG and its work. During my years as Chair of JAG, I encountered many blank stares whenever I described some activity of JAG. Except for insiders in the legal services community, most people have never heard of JAG, or if they have heard of it, they do not know what it does. With this Article, I hope to lift that veil of mystery about JAG and increase the public’s understanding of the important work that it does. I have also chosen to focus on issues and events that may have some instructional value for those involved in access to justice issues in other states. I realize that the legal culture varies from state to state. Yet there is surely enough commonality to access to justice issues throughout the country that our efforts to address those issues in Maine may have some relevance elsewhere.

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