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Legal Happenings

Legal Aid DC Honors Servants of Justice

April 12, 2024

By Jeremy Conrad

David Tatel accepts his Servant of Justice Award from Legal Aid DC.

Members and leaders of the Washington, D.C., legal community came together on April 9 for Legal Aid DC’s annual Servant of Justice Awards at JW Marriott in D.C.

“This event was a vivid reminder of how the D.C. legal community comes together to use its resources — both legal services and financial support — to help stand up for our neighbors across the city when they face a life-challenging legal crisis,” said Vikram Swaruup, Legal Aid DC’s executive director.

Thanks to the efforts of awardees and numerous other attorneys, Legal Aid DC — the District’s oldest and largest civil legal aid service — increased its representation of District residents by 10 percent over the past year.

"Every resident deserves access to an attorney to secure protection from an abusive partner, stay in their homes, or access life-saving benefits. Because of the work of Legal Aid DC attorneys and attorneys across the city committing to pro bono work, we were able to accept 76 percent more cases in the first three months of this year compared to the same time in 2023,” Swaruup said.

However, potential cuts to the city’s Access to Justice Initiative if Mayor Bowser’s 2025 budget passes threaten Legal Aid DC’s ability to serve low-income District residents facing significant legal challenges.

“Last year, following outcry from District residents, the D.C. Council undid cuts to legal services funding,” Swaruup said. “Unfortunately, we are back at the same fight again this year as the mayor’s budget would slash these funds by 67 percent. The fact is that these funds pay for one-third of the employees at Legal Aid DC who will assist some 5,400 residents in need of critical legal services. These cuts are also just one piece of a larger budget that is balanced on the backs of the struggling residents we serve every day.”

Recognizing individuals’ contributions to Legal Aid DC’s mission of making justice real, the organization honored Holland & Knight LLP senior counsel Nancy Anderson with the Klepper Prize for Volunteer Excellence for the half-dozen Social Security benefits cases she represented between 2016 and 2024 through Legal Aid DC’s Pro Bono Program.

Magnolia Alvarez Velasquez was awarded Legal Aid DC’s Partnership Award. Alvarez Velasquez immigrated to the United States from Guatemala 15 years ago seeking a better life for herself and her young children, who later joined her here. After receiving assistance from Legal Aid DC senior staff attorney Julia Ward in resolving the family’s immigration issues, Alvarez Velasquez — who operates a successful tamale stand with her husband in Mount Pleasant — has stepped up to support her community. She testified before D.C. Council in support of the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act, which seeks to eliminate criminal penalties for vending without a license in the city.

Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP partner Debo P. Adegbile and former D.C. Circuit Judge David S. Tatel of Hogan Lovells received the Servant of Justice Award. Adegbile, whose work has included arguing several pivotal civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, graciously committed a portion of his acceptance speech to recalling his experience arguing a voting rights case before Tatel years prior.

Adegbile had been involved in developing the congressional record at issue in the case, giving him an advantage in argument. “The one thing I had, going to the podium, was that I knew the record,” Adegbile said, “and then I argued the case before David Tatel. And it was quite jarring and unsettling to come to understand that I didn’t know the record better than everyone in the country, and that there was one very formidable person who I was looking up at that knew the record better than I did.”

Tatel’s nearly six-decade career includes practice in public interest law, government service, private practice, and almost 30 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He was the first executive director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, served as director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and helped establish the Legal Services Corporation.

Tatel led the Office for Civil Rights under President Jimmy Carter and, during his time on the D.C. Circuit, he decided dozens of landmark cases. Many of Tatel’s accomplishments came after the loss of his eyesight at age 30.

“I’ve been coming to these dinners for years,” Tatel said. “The list of people who have received this award are an extraordinary group of people, and it’s an honor to be among them.” He opened his acceptance speech by saying, “I have always loved the name of this award. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every judge were a servant of justice?”

Tatel also praised the work of his co-honoree, Adegbile, on the voting rights cases Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder and Shelby County v. Holder, calling the latter’s arguments in those Supreme Court cases masterful.

Tatel said the cases he most fondly remembers from his long service on the bench were brought by public interest, civil rights, and legal aid lawyers. “Why? Because thanks to those skilled and devoted lawyers, even though their clients were disadvantaged in many ways, they stood before my court on equal terms with powerful, well-represented corporations and government agencies, presenting their claims to a tribunal empowered to provide a complete remedy,” Tatel said.

“On those days, in my court, the rule of law was alive and well … but, alas, that’s not how it works for most poor people,” he added. “Most poor people — indeed, more than 90 percent — have no access to the legal system at all. It’s a bedrock American principle that we all share the same rights, from the lofty, like the right to speak freely, to the more mundane, like the right to accurate Social Security and welfare payments. Rights are hollow promises if people can’t access our legal system to vindicate those rights.”

“The rule of law cannot survive if it works only for the wealthy,” Tatel continued, “which is why events like this are so important. Every dollar we give to Legal Aid DC is a dollar for rule of law.”