This week’s Q&A victim is Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, DC office. Here’s Nicole’s full bio, and here’s the short version: “Nicole Austin-Hillery is the first Director and Counsel of The Brennan Center’s Washington, D.C. office, which she opened in March 2008. In her role, Ms. Austin-Hillery oversees D.C. office operations, serves as the chief advocate for the Brennan Center on a host of justice and democracy issues and coordinates work with other civil rights, social justice and democracy organizations in D.C. Ms. Austin-Hillery is the organization’s chief liaison to Congress and the Administration.”
Nicole and I have served together on a nonprofit board for a few years, and I’ve come to value her judgment. I also like the fact that Nicole sits at a sort-of intersection between civil rights work and Access to Justice Work. Being able to view one through the prism of the other gives Nicole a unique and interesting perspective. Anyway Nicole was kind enough to provide A’s to some Q’s, and here we go…
Steve: the Brennan Center focuses on protecting individual rights and also on promoting access to the justice through systemic reforms. This includes the Center’s Closing the Justice Gap work. As to accessibility in the civil justice system, if you could make two (or more!) large-scale changes at the wave of your magic wand, what would they be?
Nicole: My first change would be to enact “Civil Gideon” to ensure that low-income litigants with viable and important civil claims receive fair and adequate legal representation in pursuit of their civil claims. Inherent in our Democracy is the access to justice for all individuals; however, if one does not have adequate counsel, access to justice can be a distant wish. The ability to access our justice system should not be limited in any way but especially not due to economic limitations and an inability to obtain legal representation.
My second change would be to create an automatic fee structure for litigants with respect to filing fees and other related court costs that would be based on one’s ability to cover the cost of those fees. I realize that litigants have the option of filing a motion requesting that the Court reduce their fees dues to their inability to pay those fees; however, under that system, the litigant is required to take proactive steps to essentially make a special request of the Court for financial relief. Under my proposed fee structure, the litigant would be spared from making such a request. Once a litigant provides information on their income, the fee-based structure would automatically determine fair and equitable costs based on that stated income.
Steve: the Brennan Center does much work in collaboration with other advocacy groups, law offices, etc.. I’d like to hear from you about your approach to building institutional partnerships. Aside from simply sharing a commonality of a purpose, how do advocacy organizations forge strong partnerships and work well together to amplify their impact?
Nicole: one of the most important elements to building strong collaborations with other advocacy groups is having a basic level of trust – trust in a shared sense of purpose and trust in the partnership. This can be difficult to achieve because it is natural for organizations, of any kind, to feel somewhat competitive. However, when everyone involved remembers that the most important part of our work is protecting the rights and interests of the disenfranchised and the underserved, it becomes easier to focus on the commonality of purpose and realize that trusting and working in tandem is one of the most important tools in our advocates’ arsenal.
Steve: whether fiction or nonfiction, has any book particularly impacted you with respect to you career in civil rights and ATJ?
Nicole: Congressman John Lewis’ s autobiography, “Walking With the Wind” is a book that reaffirmed my commitment to being a civil rights advocate. Mr. Lewis is one of my personal heroes. Learning of how his early years and experiences with racism changed his life and emboldened him to make significant changes in our legal system with respect to who in our Democracy has access to equal rights bolstered my own commitment to racial justice. His unyielding courage, illustrated throughout the book, is inspiring and motivating! Mr. Lewis is truly a warrior and inspires be to a warrior as well!
Steve: bonus question! If you recommend a restaurant that a visitor to DC should try, I’ll recommend one too….
Nicole: I would recommend Acadiana. The cuisine is great–low country southern, with a touch of Louisiana in DC. The atmosphere is lovely and the staff is attentive and helpful. It’s one of my “go to” spots! It is an especially great choice during Restaurant Week when the entire menu is available to customers at a discounted price–you still get the same great food, the same amount, but at a bargain price.
Steve: great choice! Love their gumbo. I’ll recommend one a bit off the trodden path: Bar Pilar. Bar Pilar is on DC’s quickly commercializing 14th Street Corridor, not far from U Street. Small place, small plates, big ambiance, great taste.