(AP) — President Joe Biden
intends to take executive action Tuesday to ensure that minorities, low-income Americans, and others have better access to quality legal representation after services were reduced during the Trump
Biden will sign a memorandum directing the Department of Justice
to reopen the shuttered Access to Justice Office and to relaunch the White House
Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable.
The plans are outlined in a presidential memo obtained by The Associated Press
, and Biden has directed the roundtable to investigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic
on access to justice in both civil and criminal cases.
As legal services were cut back, the pandemic “further exposed and exacerbated inequities in our justice system,” according to Biden, who added that the issues “have touched the lives of many persons in this country, particularly low-income people
and people of color.”
The memo issued on Tuesday is Biden's latest step toward reforming the criminal justice system and advancing racial equity, coming nearly a year after the death
of George Floyd
sparked global protests and calls for action to address structural racism
It builds on an executive order Biden signed on his first day in office establishing an initiative to prioritize equity in government operations, as well as his proposed budget of $1.5 billion to strengthen state and local criminal justice systems, including public defenders, according to White House officials.
The memo does not explicitly reopen the Access to Justice Office but requires Attorney General Merrick Garland to submit a plan to expand access to justice work within 120 days. Civil rights
organizations and leaders have been urging the Biden administration
to reestablish the Access to Justice Office and its work.
The Access to Justice office was established in 2016 by President Barack Obama
, and it worked on issues such as criminal indigent defense, fine enforcement, language barriers in the courts, and civil legal aid.
was closed in 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, with senior Justice Department
officials claiming that its mission was similar to that of public defenders, and its resources had been dwindling even before the office was closed.
The Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable was formed in 2012 and was launched as a White House initiative in 2015 to look for ways to improve access and assist people representing themselves, among other things.
The announcement comes as the Biden Justice Department refocuses on civil rights, prioritizing policing reform and combating racial discrimination.
In recent weeks, the department has opened investigations into police
officers in Louisville, Kentucky
, and Minneapolis
; federal prosecutors have charged four former Minneapolis police officers with civil rights violations in Floyd's death, and three men with hate crimes in the death of Ahmaud Arbery
Many Trump-era policies have also been reversed, including the administration's so-called "zero tolerance" immigration
policy and a memo that limited the use of broad investigations into police departments.
Stafford is a national investigative writer
with The Associated Press' Race and Ethnicity team. You can follow her on Twitter
at https://twitter.com/Kat__Stafford. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed reporting from Washington.