The Justice Department has effectively shuttered an Obama-era office dedicated to making legal aid accessible to all citizens, according to two people familiar with the situation, reported the New York Times.
The division, the Office for Access to Justice, began as an initiative in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to increase and improve legal resources for indigent litigants in civil, criminal and tribal courts. Though the head of the office reports directly to the associate attorney general, it never gained much visibility within the Justice Department because it did not oversee a large staff of prosecutors.
While Attorney General Jeff Sessions cannot close the office without notifying the Congress, he can sideline it by moving its resources elsewhere. Its offices now sit dark on the third floor of the Justice Department building. The staff of a dozen or so has dwindled and left the department over the past few months, the people said. Maha Jweied, the acting director of the department, left this month to start a consulting business, according to her LinkedIn profile.
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and Ms. Jweied did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Career prosecutors emphasized that new administrations reshuffle the Justice Department’s priorities, de-emphasizing or shuttering projects that previous administrations had supported to devote resources to their own agendas.
The office’s stated mission was to “deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.” It worked with other federal, state and local entities in the justice system to “increase access to counsel and legal assistance” for people who could not afford lawyers.
Civil rights groups objected to its effective closure.
“Sessions’ shutting down the Access to Justice Initiative sadly speaks for itself,” said Vanita Gupta, the chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the former head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department under former President Barack Obama.
Added Sharon McGowan, director of strategy at Lambda Legal and a former official in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in the Obama administration: “Ever since he became attorney general, Sessions has advanced positions that are irreconcilable with where we are as a country.”
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