AUSTIN – The Texas Access to Justice Commission with its co-sponsor, the State Bar of Texas, honored veterans throughout the state at the Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans last night at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. Almost half a million dollars was raised to help provide civil legal services to low-income Texas veterans.
Proceeds are distributed by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and dedicated to the provision of civil legal services for low-income Texas veterans.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Brett Busby served as the master of ceremonies for the evening. Justice Busby is the Court's liaison to the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Throughout the evening, he emphasized how drastically civil legal issues can impact our veterans and the myriad of ways they can benefit from help when they need it.
This year’s “Macey and Harry Reasoner Access to Justice Lecture Series” featured Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht of the Supreme Court of Texas who has long been at the forefront of access to justice efforts in Texas. As a veteran himself, the Chief Justice spoke movingly about the importance of a justice system that is accessible and available to assist veterans when they need it most. Illustrating his point were a pair of veterans, joined by the legal aid professionals who helped them, who recounted their own experiences navigating the justice system and the enormous impact legal aid had in helping them solve their legal problems.
Justice Busby presented the 2023 James B. Sales Boots on the Ground Award to Victor L. Hunt, of Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, and Maureen O’Connell, of Disability Rights Texas; the 2023 Harry M. Reasoner Justice for All Award to Thomas S. Leatherbury, director of SMU Dedman School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic; and the 2023 Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award to Betty Balli Torres.
A dedicated public servant for four decades, Mr. Hunt’s career has always involved providing direct legal representation to low-income clients. His work in Oklahoma helped the mentally disabled integrate into society instead of being institutionalized, and his work with homeless communities helped individuals overcome barriers that historically reinforce homelessness. As head of LANWT’s Bankruptcy Practice, he developed and provided training that ensured LANWT’s ability to provide bankruptcy representation to clients in all 114 counties it serves.
Throughout her 45-year career, Maureen O'Connell represented the rights of disabled persons. She helped found, and later served as director of, the Southern Disability Law Center, an organization whose work benefited individuals in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. She won ground-breaking cases, helping to set legal precedents that will benefit the community of disabled persons well into the future. With tact and nuance, she has fundamentally altered the perspectives of those she encounters while preserving relationships, enlightening opposing parties, and ensuring fundamental changes that benefit the wider community.
Thomas S. Leatherbury recently retired from Vinson & Elkins and opened Thomas S. Leatherbury Law. He has spent his career defending the constitutional rights of his fellow citizens, frequently doing so on a pro bono basis. While at V&E, he served as Chair of Talent Management, overseeing training, evaluation, development, and the firm's DEI initiatives, which allowed him to mentor the next generation of lawyers. He currently combines his mentoring abilities, the defense of the constitution, and passion for pro bono work by serving as director of the SMU Dedman School of Law's First Amendment Clinic.
Betty Balli Torres has made a career out of her passion for access to justice. She has served as the Executive Director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation since 2001 and has been instrumental in ensuring funding for legal aid throughout that time, especially in times of economic distress when the public's need for legal aid increases at the same time funding sources become scarce. Through her efforts, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation is currently responsible for distributing $50 million in funds annually to legal services organizations in the state.
Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans
The Gala Committee was chaired by Harry M. Reasoner, who also serves as Chair Emeritus for the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Gala co-chairs include prominent Texas attorneys who donated their time and talents for the 2023 effort: Jerry Clements, with Locke Lord; Elizabeth Gibson, with Toyota Motor North America; Monica Karuturi, with CenterPoint Energy; David McAtee II, with AT&T; Richard Warren Mithoff, with Mithoff Law; Ross R. Moody, with The Moody Foundation and National Western Life; Stephen C. Mount, with H-E-B; Marie Yeates, with Vinson & Elkins LLP; and Carlos M. Zaffirini, Jr., with Adelanto HealthCare Venture.
Harriet E. Miers, of Locke Lord LLP, serves as chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission.
Texas Legal Aid
More than 5.4 million Texans qualify for civil legal aid but only 10 percent of the legal needs are actually met due to inadequate funding resources. Legal aid organizations help more than 100,000 Texas families each year.
Photos are available at: https://tinyurl.com/3zswesj4
For caption information, contact: David Bristow, Program Developer, Texas Access to Justice Commission, 512.427.1873, firstname.lastname@example.org