Washington — President Biden took executive action Tuesday to boost access to legal services and the legal system for low-income Americans after government-led initiatives largely went dormant during the Trump administration.
Mr. Biden's presidential memorandum is the latest step taken by his administration to advance racial equity and joins his requested $1.5 billion for grants to bolster state and local criminal justice systems, including for public defenders. His action also comes nearly a year after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked protests against racial injustice and federal efforts to reform policing.
"The federal government has a critical role to play in expanding access to the nation's legal system and supporting the work of civil legal aid providers and public defenders," the White House said in a fact sheet detailing the memorandum. "President Biden's executive action today will reinvigorate the federal government's role in advancing access to justice, and help ensure that the Administration's policies and recovery efforts can reach as many individuals as possible."
Through his executive action, Mr. Biden directed Attorney General Merrick Garland to submit a plan within 120 days to expand the Justice Department's work on access to justice. While the Justice Department under the Obama administration opened the Office for Access to Justice in 2010 to expand and improve access to lawyers and legal assistance, Attorney General Jeff Sessions effectively shut down the office in 2018.
Garland is expected to issue his own memorandum Tuesday indicating the Justice Department's efforts to increase access to legal resources will begin immediately.
Mr. Biden's memorandum also re-establishes the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which was launched in 2012 and formally established in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama. The roundtable is designed to raise awareness across the federal government of how civil legal aid advances federal objectives and improve access to justice.
Among the legal challenges the roundtable is set to address are those posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said.
The pandemic "has further exposed and exacerbated inequities in our justice system, as courts and legal service providers have been forced to curtail in-person operations, often without the resources or technology to offer remote-access or other safe alternatives," the memorandum states. "These access limitations have compounded the effects of other harms wrought by the pandemic. These problems have touched the lives of many persons in this country, particularly low-income people and people of color."
Since Mr. Biden took office, his administration has leveraged the authority of the federal government to advance criminal justice initiatives and address racial inequity. The Justice Department opened civil investigations into the Minneapolis and Louisville Metro Police Departments following the deaths of Floyd and , respectively, by law enforcement. Four former Minneapolis police officers were also indicted on federal civil rights charges for their role in Floyd's death, while three Georgia men were charged with federal hate crimes for the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery.