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Justice Dept sidelines office dedicated to expanding legal aid to poor citizens: report
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has effectively shuttered an office established under former President Obama to increase the accessibility of legal aid to needy Americans, according to a new report.
People familiar with the matter told The New York Times that the Office for Access to Justice has seen its staff leave the office over the past few months and its acting director, Maha Jweied, step down from the department.
Career Justice Department employees told the Times that new administrations often change or end projects begun by previous administrations in order to reallocate resources to their own priorities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions can't officially close the office without informing Congress, but can reallocate its resources to other divisions.
The office, which began in 2010 under former Attorney General Eric Holder, was dedicated to improving the accessibility of legal aid for the poor and needy in civil and criminal courts.
According to its website, which remains online, the office's mission was to "help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status."
Vanita Gupta, the former head of the DOJ's civil rights office under Obama, criticized the move in an interview with the Times.
"Sessions' shutting down the Access to Justice Initiative sadly speaks for itself," Gupta said. "Access to Justice was a recognition that the Justice Department's job was not just to prosecute cases, but to ensure justice in the system overall."
Under Holder and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the Justice Department took an active approach to advocating for poor citizens who lacked quality legal services. The DOJ filed dozens of "statements of interest" in court cases across the country on behalf of people who the agency said had received low-quality legal service, according to the Times.
Another former Obama DOJ official and current director of top LGBTQ legal group Lambda Legal, Sharon McGowan, slammed the move, telling The Times "ever since he became attorney general, [Jeff] Sessions has advanced positions that are irreconcilable with where we are as a country."
Sessions has rescinded several Obama-era policies since assuming the post of Attorney General, including a rollback of marijuana rules and rescinding an Obama-era directive to lower courts advising them to avoid imposing large fees and penalties on poor defendants.