Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans raises $448,000

Published 7:36 am Tuesday, April 13, 2021

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AUSTIN—The Texas Access to Justice Commission, with its co-sponsor the State Bar of Texas, honored veterans throughout the state at the Virtual 2021 Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans. The Masters of Ceremonies for the gala were Texas Supreme Court Justices Eva Guzman and Brett Busby. More than $448,000 was raised with all proceeds designated for addressing the civil legal needs of low-income Texans. Proceeds will be distributed to legal aid providers serving veterans by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

The Commission also celebrated its 20th Anniversary. Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht was joined by former Justice Deborah Hankinson and former Justice Harriet O’Neill to speak about the history of the Commission. Formed in April 2001, the Texas Access to Justice Commission was only the fifth commission in the nation at that time.

Justice Hankinson recalled that “If we were going to succeed, we were going to do it together and collaboratively, and (engage) in some very significant problem solving.” Hankinson noted that Texas is a leader in demonstrating what Access to Justice efforts can accomplish.

Justice O’Neill talked about the development of the Commission under then Commission Chair, Jim Sales, including the relationship that evolved between Sales and the first Commission Executive Director Emily Jones.

“Watching these two bond as they work together and develop a lifelong friendship was a beautiful thing to see,” O’Neill reflected, and stated that their work and relationship was a tribute to the spirit of those who join in the Commision’s vision and execution.

Chief Justice Hecht described the strength of the Commission embodied by current Chair, Harry Reasoner. Hecht shared that Reasoner, one of the best lawyers in the country, not only accepted the appointment but was personally passionate about the access to justice mission. Under his leadership, the Commission redouble its legislative and congressional efforts in pursuit of additional civil legal aid funding, which have been met with success. His remarkable commitment has also resulted in greater public awareness of and support for providing low-income Texans with civil legal services and making the justice system real to them.

Justice Eva M. Guzman, Justice Brett Busby, and Justice Rebecca Huddle presented the annual award winners. The 2021 James B. Sales Boots on the Ground Award was presented to Beth Mitchell, Senior Managing Attorney with Disability Rights Texas, and Allison Eichenfeld Neal, Managing Attorney, with Texas Advocacy Project. The inaugural Harry M. Reasoner Justice for All Award, which recognizes an attorney who demonstrates dedication to providing pro bono legal services, was awarded to R. Paul Yetter, partner with Yetter Coleman LLP. The Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Fred Fuchs with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid for his “extraordinary spirit and demonstrated commitment to legal aid.” Each recipient offered heartfelt remarks of gratitude and appreciation for the support of their firm or legal aid organization, colleagues, and the access to justice community.

The keynote speaker for the gala was General Larry O. Spencer, United States Air Force (Retired). General Spencer shared a personal accounts of three Veterans who served in the Korean War and the lasting impact their military service had on their lives. The men were Army Sergeants, each with 20 years of service and each presented with a Purple Heart. Their message to General Spencer was the same each time he saw them over the years, “This is the greatest country on earth, but it’s not perfect. We need to continue to make this country as best we can. We need to continue on this journey toward a more perfect Union.”

General Spencer’s father, Sgt. Alfonso Spencer, served in the Koren War. As a proud son, General Spencer recalled, “Growing up with my dad, he never wanted to talk about the war. Many of the Vets from previous generations came back from war and were told to suck it up and not complain. There was no acronym called PTSD at the time.”

General Spencer applauded the work and impact civil legal aid has had for veterans and reiterated its necessity. He explained that so many veterans suffer from the traumas of war, they have endured a lot, and many do not share its impact with loved ones. Affording an attorney would be out of reach for many. Funding civil legal aid for Texas veterans is crucial. He expressed his appreciation for and gratitude to the Texas Access to Justice Commission and its work.

Gala co-chairs include Texas attorneys who donated their time and talents for the 2021 effort: Jerry K. Clements with Locke Lord LLP; Monica Karuturi with CenterPoint Energy; David R. McAtee II with AT&T Inc.; Richard W. Mithoff with the Mithoff Law Firm; Stephen C. Mount with H-E-B; Sandra Phillips Rogers with Toyota; Wayne Watts; Marie Yeates with Vinson & Elkins LLP; and Carlos M. Zaffirini, Jr. with Audrey & Carlos Zaffirini Family Foundation.

Harry M. Reasoner, of Vinson & Elkins LLP, serves as chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission.

Approximately 5.2 million Texans qualify for civil legal aid, but only 10 percent of the legal needs are actually met due to a lack of resources. Since its inception in 2001, the Texas Access to Justice Commission has steadily championed efforts to increase financial and pro bono resources and remove barriers to improve access to civil justice for vulnerable Texans. Legal aid organizations help more than 148,000 Texas families each year.