From its founding, Lowenstein Sandler has been committed to advancing the public interest and serving communities in need. The Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest embodies this commitment, directing the firm’s strong pro bono program and other forms of civic and philanthropic engagement. Through these efforts, the center addresses significant social problems and offers meaningful assistance to low-income and other marginalized people, along with the organizations that advocate for and support them. This work engages the full range of the firm’s talents and reflects the core values that imbue all of the firm’s efforts: to perform work of the highest quality in a manner that maximizes results for our clients and causes.
In September, I attended a webinar with poet and author Clint Smith. Given the deluge of online words I only half-absorb, I am surprised by how often I’ve since thought about something Mr.Smith said. For African Americans, he said, hope is not a feeling but a discipline. It is continuing to chip away at a wall even if you have no good reason to believe that you, your children, or your children’s children will ever see the wall come down.
I’m not sure why this metaphor took up residence in my mind. Maybe it’s because in this long, anxious season, hope has survived more as a discipline than as a feeling. Or maybe it’s because in 2021, the wall gave way a little.
The barriers that separate us from people in prison are hardly metaphorical, but even in the criminal justice system, some cracks appeared. After months of advocacy, the firm and its juvenile justice coalition partners persuaded the New Jersey Legislature to eliminate all monetary penalties associated with adjudications of juvenile delinquency. The law applies not only prospectively but also retroactively to vacate outstanding balances. Young people leaving juvenile facilities can now focus on their education and employment without fear that unpaid debts will land them back behind bars. Meanwhile, the firm settled a long-running case on behalf of a transgender woman who was assaulted when placed in male units in two local jails. In addition to compensating her for the harms she suffered, the defendants agreed to terms that will require them to search, transport, and house transgender inmates in accordance with their gender identities rather than based on the sex they were assigned at birth.
In housing too, we have seen real progress. As part of a large coalition of tenant advocates, we helped draft and pass a law in New Jersey that prohibits eviction based on rental debt that accrued during the COVID period. Under the law, landlords can sue to collect a money judgment but cannot evict a tenant whose debt arose in the covered period and who certifies to a qualifying household income. The law also appropriated $500 million to help low-income tenants pay rent going forward, on top of more than $700 million previously allocated to paying rental arrears. These measures should help prevent mass eviction.
Young immigrants are also better off than they were. We are on the brink of settling a class action that has restored the right of 18-to-21-year-olds to attain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). As of December, the government had approved the SIJS petitions of 715 class members out of the original 759, and it had abandoned the policy of disqualifying applicants in this age group. Moreover, our advocacy and litigation have helped stop illegal attempts to deport children with approved SIJS petitions.
The walls we’re chipping at may be high and wide, but we have many tools to wear them away until the light seeps through. Despite everything, or perhaps because of the collective will a crisis can generate, some people’s lives got better. Thank you to our clients, our colleagues in the nonprofit sector, and our volunteers for making this happen. It takes all of us to sustain the discipline of hope.
Chair, Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest