(Montpelier, Vermont) Congressman Peter Welch addressed Vermont Access to Justice Coalition members, more than 50 lawyers and judges, and Vermont Poverty Law Fellows Grace Pazdan and Jessica Radbord in the Cedar Creek Room at the Vermont Statehouse this week. He remarked that the ongoing support of the Fellowship by Vermont’s legal community has made it possible for the program to attract candidates nationally to fill a position that contributes not only to the well-being of Vermonters, but to Vermont’s legal community and its courts. Welch was introduced by his step-daughter, Vermont Bar Foundation president Beth Danon, who, after summarizing some of Welch’s 2011 accomplishments for Vermont and the nation, made moving comments about the kind of stepfather Welch had been to her and her four siblings and thanking Welch for being “a wonderful husband to my mother [the late Joan Smith].”
Welch acknowledged the presence of representatives from both U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy’s and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ offices. Congressman Welch paid special compliments to retiring Supreme Court Justice Denise Johnson, also present, for her service to Vermont as a Supreme Court justice and for her dedication to access to justice for all. Retiring Justice Denise Johnson was the moving force behind the formation of Vermont’s Access to Justice Coalition. Under her many-year tenure on the Coalition, whether twice as its president or as one of its working members, the Vermont Poverty Law Fellowship has taken shape, self-represented litigants have more support, an expanding pro-bono and a newly formed low-bono program for attorneys exists, the Vermont Bar Foundation has increased its IOLTA revenues through a voluntary leadership program for Vermont financial institutions called the Vermont Bar Foundation IOLTA HONOR ROLL, and support for the Vermont Poverty Law Fellowship continues to grow.
Vermont Poverty Law Fellows Grace Pazdan (2008-2010) and Jessica Radbord (2010-2012-current fellow) told moving stories about clients they have helped, Pazdan as foreclosure crisis fellow and Radbord as safe housing fellow. Pazdan highlighted the case of a family for whom she was able to renegotiate mortgage terms so they did not lose their home. Pazdan helped more than 130 similarly-situated clients, taught lawyers about foreclosure mediation, helped to gain passage of the Vermont’s Foreclosure Mediation Law and was honored at the White House for her work. She now works at Vermont Legal Aid. Current Fellow Jessica Radbord explained that her focus on safe housing has meant that more landlords are following Vermont’s Lead Law and many are now bringing substandard housing with violations of all kinds up to code. Radbord’s work on safe housing issues led her to help May’s flooding victims and positioned her perfectly to work with Vermonters suffering from the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, a task to which she now devotes all of her time.
Executive Director Bob Paolini of the Vermont Bar Association began the evening’s program by explaining that the Vermont Access to Justice Coalition is comprised of a Supreme Court justice and representatives from the Vermont Bar Association and the Vermont Bar Foundation, the Vermont Law School and the South Royalton Legal Clinic, Law Line of Vermont and Vermont Legal Aid. Coalitions similar to Vermont’s exist in a majority of states and all are focused on increasing access to justice. Prior to hiring the first Vermont Poverty Law Fellow, the Coalition completed a legal needs assessment, the data from which pointed to the need for more lawyers to advocate for Vermont’s underserved. Paolini acknowledged the first Access to Justice Campaign Chairs Spencer Knapp and the late Joan Wing whose energy and dedication made the first two campaigns the astounding success stories they were.
Co-chairs of Access to Justice Campaigns 2010 and 2011 Stacy Chapman and Tom Carlson celebrated those in attendance. Carlson thanked Vermont Bar Foundation president Beth Danon whose inspiration and work resulted in the evening’s event and Carol Ode, Campaign Coordinator, for her part. He thanked Congressman Welch for all of his work on behalf of Vermonters and for making attendance at the event a sure thing. And he thanked the many supporters of Access to Justice for their continued dedication, over the years, to this special Vermont Fellowship. “The Vermont Poverty Law Fellowship has been an amazing success story and your ongoing support makes it a story we can continue to tell.” To find out more and to make a donation, please visit www.vtbarfoundation.org.