Bloomberg Law
May 19, 2022, 6:20 PMUpdated: May 19, 2022, 7:02 PM

DOJ Taps Public Defender Rossi for Access to Justice Post (1)

Sam Skolnik
Sam Skolnik

Attorney General Merrick Garland has chosen Rachel Rossi to lead the Justice Department’s newly revived Office for Access to Justice.

The office aims to expand legal services for people who cannot afford attorneys. It was created in the Obama administration and effectively shuttered under former President Donald Trump.

Rossi will be the first leader of the revived office in the Biden administration, which has promised to expand legal rights for the poor. The office has previously worked to increase legal aid, promoted bail reform, and filed briefs in US Supreme Court cases focusing on legal rights.

“Disrupting the devastating connections between race, poverty and injustice is hard work that requires exactly the kind of dedication and vision we’ve seen in Ms. Rossi’s work at the department,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta in a DOJ statement. “Ms. Rossi’s leadership will help us build on the department’s work to make justice more accessible to all.”

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law professor and the first leader of the office during the Obama administration, said he was “delighted” by the pick. He touted Rossi’s “impressive background as a progressive and brilliant state and federal public defender” and other experience.

Rossi is the first former public defender to lead the Access to Justice office, having worked for nearly a decade as a county and federal public defender in Los Angeles. She joined DOJ as its first-ever hate crimes coordinator after a failed 2020 run for Los Angeles District Attorney.

Garland announced the restoration of the office last October. It has since promoted programs designed to aid people hurt by the pandemic, Gupta said in March remarks to the Maryland State Bar Association. That’s included efforts to assist people facing eviction.

The office will be working closely with a reinvigorated Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, Gupta said in her remarks, a partnership of about 30 agencies that coordinates access to justice work throughout the administration.

“I look forward to working closely alongside dedicated public servants across the department as we examine and reimagine the tools and systems, we rely on to make justice more accessible for all,” Rossi said in the DOJ statement.

DOJ is requesting a $10 million budget for the office in fiscal year 2023, up from $6 million in 2022. That amount would fund 42 positions that includes 18 attorneys.

(Updates with DOJ statement on selection, including new quotes from Rossi and Vanita Gupta.)

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