District Court judge in Austin, TX. Previously with Legal Aid Society of Central Texas in Austin. On Board of TX IOLTA program.
Oral history details
|Storyteller:||Lora J. Livingston|
|Date of interview:||May 7, 2015|
|Where relates to:||Texas|
|Topics:||Access to justice and American Bar Association (ABA)|
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with Lora J. Livingston
Conducted by Alan Houseman
May 7, 2015
Alan Houseman: This is an oral history of Judge Lora Livingston, who is a District Court judge in Austin, Texas. The interviewer is Alan Houseman for the National Equal Justice library. It is May 7, 2015. Lora, tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up, where you went to college and law school, so we have a context to work from.
Lora Livingston: Okay. Happy to do that. Well, as you mentioned, my name is Lora Livingston. I’m from Los Angeles, California. I grew up in what is really called the Crenshaw district in Los Angeles and lived there most of my formative years. Graduated from Dorsey High School, which will be well known to those from California. I left high school and went for a couple of years to Oregon State University where the political science department was a very small part of the campus, and decided that that was probably not the best place for me given my interest in political science, justice, and similar issues. So I transferred to UCLA, and that’s where I received an undergraduate degree. I then went to law school, also at UCLA, and graduated after three fun years there.
Alan Houseman: And, then you began legal work. I think you were a Reggie (Reginald Heber Smith Fellow). Was it right out of law school or…
Lora Livingston: So, while I was in law school, I had heard about the Reggie program, and so I started investigating a little bit. What did it entail? How long was it going to last? Was there a stipend, or some sort of remuneration to be paid? What was it going to look like? I miraculously was accepted into what was, in my law school class, a very competitive program. The Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program was at the beginning of my legal career. I was happy to be a Reggie. I enjoyed my Reggie service. I think the best part of being a Reggie for me was the 25 percent of the time that I was allowed to spend on legal education projects and other non-traditional practice areas. So that was a wonderful kind of work, which I’ll tell you a little bit more about in just a minute.
Lora Livingston: The other 75 percent of the time that I worked on my Reggie Fellowship, I did what I would call just bread and butter kinds of legal aid cases — housing, consumer, family, domestic violence, and so forth, and some public benefits. It was a great experience. My sort of funny Reggie story, I guess, is that when you apply to the Reggie program, it’s very competitive and if you’re lucky enough to get one, just as I was, they ask you to give them the top three choices of assignment. So I thought, okay, I’m going to be very broad in answering this question. I said anywhere in California, anywhere in the DC area, or anywhere in the Atlanta area. They sent me to Austin, Texas.
Lora Livingston: Fortunately for me, while I was on the fellowship, the office offered me a permanent staff attorney position. So I ended up staying, not just one or two years, but a total of six years at the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas in Austin, Texas. That’s where I began my legal work, and my legal career started here. I still live in Austin. I’m now a judge in this community, and I have loved every minute of legal work that I’ve done in this city.
Lora Livingston: In addition to the things I’ve talked about specifically related to the work with with the Reggie Program, I was able, through the work at the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas, to work on neighborhood association work. And so, in this community back in the eighties and early nineties when I was at Legal Aid, we represented a number of neighborhood associations that were building low income housing and affordable housing in the Austin area. And, that was very significant work.
Lora Livingston: I also worked on projects with the Black Citizens Task Force that had to do with challenging in federal court some alleged violations of their First Amendment rights, having to do with their peaceful protests and their right to organize parades. The interesting thing about that work was that we were on the same side of the lawsuit with the local chapter of the KKK, who also wanted to parade down the streets of Austin at the time. It was a fairly interesting position to be in as a litigator, to be on the same side with the Black Citizens Task Force and the KKK. Yet, given our legal issues, we were in fact aligned in our fight against the city ordinance and were successful. So, it was the first time I got a chance to litigate in federal court and it was pretty amazing.
Lora Livingston: My work at Legal Aid on the Reggie side, meaning the 25 percent of the time that I spent on fun legal education projects — and they’re really the kinds of things that really inspired me to go to law school — I really enjoyed that very much. But, I have to say I enjoyed representing the citizens that came in to Legal Aid with basic problems — people facing eviction, people in small claims consumer cases, people who had been abused in domestic violence situations, people who had kids who just couldn’t figure out a way to keep the kids in the household when somebody from CPS was accusing them of abuse or neglect. I represented some amazing individuals, and I am very, very proud of the work that I did at Legal Aid and all the folks that I worked with over there.
Alan Houseman: So, after Legal Aid, where did you go in terms of your career?
Lora Livingston: So, after Legal Aid, I went into private practice. I was in a small firm for about four years, and then I opened my own practice for a couple of years. After about six years of private practice, I was approached by one of the local judges about an associate judge position over at the courthouse in the area of family law. Here in our system, the associate judges in Travis County are appointed, not elected. So I was appointed to work as an associate judge, and I heard all manner of family cases for about three years. One of my bosses retired during that time. So I ran for a district court bench, which is the general jurisdiction trial court in our system, and was elected in 1998. I started as a district judge in January of 1999. It was pretty awesome. I’ve been in that position ever since 1999.
Lora Livingston: It’s been great. I will tell you one quick story that sort of bridges the two things. About a year ago, I was participating in a recreational activity. It was a study about transportation, particularly about bicycle use. So I was participating in this bike study. I was over at one of the local churches in Austin and ran into this woman who I thought looked pretty familiar. But, at the courthouse, lots of people come through the courthouse. I think everybody looks familiar.
Lora Livingston: Well, she came up to me and she said, “Hey, are you Lora Livingston?” And I said, “Well, yes I am.” And, of course, when that happens to me at the grocery store or at the gas station or someplace else, I’m always a little worried because it could be somebody who didn’t have a great experience in the courthouse. So, I was a little bit cautious about talking to this woman, but I said, “Yes, I’m Lora. How are you? Who are you?” Kind of, tell me more. And she said, “My name is so-and-so, and you represented me when you were at Legal Aid.” And she said, “Come with me. I want to show you something and I want you to meet someone.” And I said, “Sure.”
Lora Livingston: And so, we walked a few feet. She introduced me to her now 20-something-year-old son. She told me that I’d represented her in a case in which CPS was trying to take her child away from her and we were successful in that case. She introduced me to her now-grown son. The two of them were doing extremely well. They too were participating in this bicycle study. It was, for me, an amazing end to a story that was very difficult. She remembered me and I thought she looked familiar, but I wasn’t exactly sure. I have to tell you, her son looked fantastic, and it just put a smile on my face to know that we’d done something good for that family. I was very proud of the work that we did at Legal Aid. That was kind of a really kind of a cherry on top of the sundae for me that day.
Alan Houseman: Well, for many years you’ve been involved in Bar activities in Texas and nationally, and ultimately around access to justice issues. So, let’s talk first, and we can do this chronologically maybe, let’s talk first about Texas, and then, let’s talk about the national work. So, what have you been involved with in Texas?
Lora Livingston: Gosh. In the three decades or so that I’ve worked in Texas, I’ve been involved in a number of local and statewide initiatives. I guess the real start to the most impactful work I’ve done in the area of access to justice in this state started when I served on the board of the Texas IOLTA program. It’s the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. When I was on that board, it was actually called the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation. It was at the time and remains the primary IOLTA funder in this state. IOLTA means Interest on Lawyers Trust Account, for those that don’t know that acronym.
Lora Livingston: And, over the years the foundation has received funds from a number of other sources. They now receive funds from crime victims, money from what we call in Texas the basic civil legal services (it’s a filing fee add-on that is generated), and money from attorneys who want to volunteer to give a contribution every year, and some mandatory contributions that are imposed on lawyers in this state. The foundation administers all of these funds to legal services programs that represent without pay and without cost poor people who have a civil legal need.
Lora Livingston: So, the foundation board really gave me an opportunity to work statewide on issues that I felt very deeply about. Most of the time that I was on that board, I was either in private practice or a judge. So, particularly since I became a judge, the foundation board work gave me the ability to continue to stay connected with those in the trenches that are actually doing the field work of direct service for people in the community who need help. I don’t do direct service anymore, but I get to stay involved in the work that is done on behalf of poor Texans in our state by the work that I do on these boards.
Lora Livingston: To be able to actually make decisions about funding programs that I know will eventually help people in need is very, very rewarding. I mean, it sounds corny to say, “Oh, it’s really rewarding work.” But, the truth is that it is the most meaningful contribution that we can make as a community. So, I stayed on that board for about 12 years. Then I rolled off the board and looked for other opportunities to continue my work toward access to justice.
Lora Livingston: The next big board I was invited to participate on was the inaugural board of the Texas Access to Justice Commission. If the foundation is the funding entity, the commission is the policymaking entity. And so, the commission is organized into committees. We have a legislative committee and a law school committee and another committee that looks at ways in which we might assist self-represented litigants and a number of other committees that work under the auspices of the commission to try to find ways to enhance the delivery of legal services in our state.
Lora Livingston: When we first started the commission, my vision at the time for the commission was that the commission would be this statewide organization that took a very thoughtful and thorough look at our delivery system in this state. My suggestion to that board was that we try as best we can to create the best comprehensive delivery system that we could for the people who live in Texas. And that’s what we try to do. So, between the foundation and the commission — and by the way, they work very cooperatively together in this state — the work of those two entities allowed me to continue to fight for justice and to seek ways in which we could carry out justice and make justice for all a reality in Texas.
Alan Houseman: Let’s shift to your national level involvement. You’ve been very active in a number of ABA entities that focus on access to justice in one way or another.
Lora Livingston: That’s right. I tell people that I’m working my way through the ABA Division of Legal Services.
Alan Houseman: So, talk a little bit about some of those activities that you’ve been involved with.
Lora Livingston: Absolutely. Well, because of my work in Texas with the IOLTA Foundation, that led to my appointment to the ABA Commission on IOLTA, which was really the first big ABA entity that I served on. I had a great time. I served two terms on that board, which is a little bit unusual, but the reason they made an exception was because at the time, I guess it was during my second term, Texas was in the middle of a big Supreme Court case in which the IOLTA program was being challenged. So they made an exception to keep someone from Texas on that commission throughout the litigation. That proved, I hope, to be a pretty wise decision. I hope I was able to provide a local flavor for the work that was done on behalf of Texas by lots of people nationally to help us ultimately be successful in our fight to maintain the program.
Lora Livingston: So, that was really my first big ABA assignment, if you will. Since then, I’ve served on the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, which is the ABA entity that is primarily focused on the moderate means community. We try to find a way for lawyers to earn a living in the practice of law, but also serve an underserved population in our country, specifically folks of moderate needs. That’s where that committee specifically was involved. We looked at ways in which we might leverage self-help centers, whether they were court based or run by legal aid offices or other nonprofits. We looked at lots of ways in which we might assist people who are representing themselves in court, or in transactional matters, and looked at ways in which we might broaden access in more significant ways than had ever been done in the past. So that was my next big assignment within the ABA.
Lora Livingston: From there, I went to the ABA Standing Committee on, it’s kind of a long name, it’s called SCLAID for short, but it’s the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. SCLAID, to distinguish it from the other entities, looks both at the civil legal aid system as well as the criminal justice system. It has a two-part focus. About half the agenda is related to civil legal aid and the other half to criminal indigent defense. I loved my work on SCLAID because it’s one of the premiere entities within the ABA, very well respected.
Lora Livingston: It has a very robust agenda, both in civil legal aid and in criminal indigent defense. The work that’s done by SCLAID is pretty phenomenal. While I was at SCLAID, we worked a great deal on language access issues because that’s been a very hot topic of late. We also, at SCLAID, are the primary sponsors of a criminal indigent defense summit that still continues today. It puts out reports and really explores some innovative ways to provide access to justice in both the civil and the criminal arena. So I really enjoyed the work on SCLAID.
Lora Livingston: I actually went back to the Commission on IOLTA for yet another tour of duty, but this time I went back as the chair. And so, I had a very different role this time as opposed to just being a regular member. Everybody on the commission makes a huge contribution, but when you’re the chair, you really do feel, or at least I certainly did, sincerely that I wanted to make sure that that the commission was really on top while I was at the helm. It was a challenging time because IOLTA revenue was dropping pretty significantly at that time, so we worked tirelessly to try to create and think about fresh ways in which we could generate more dollars through the IOLTA program. Lots of very exciting things were happening in the IOLTA community at that time. I got to be a part of that and that was pretty fantastic.
Alan Houseman: It’s interesting that SCLAID has had so many prominent Texans, either as chair or on it, Deborah Hankinson…
Lora Livingston: Bill Whitehurst, Deborah Hankinson.
Alan Houseman: Bill Whitehurst, I just did his oral history, and you, and…
Lora Livingston: Absolutely. I’m hoping to go back. I’m hoping to work my way through all of the ABA entities in the Division of Legal Services. That’s really where my heart is. I also do some things with the ABA related to my work as a judge. I’m a member of the judicial division and a delegate from Texas to the National Conference of State Trial Judges. I want to stay involved in all areas — well not everything that the ABA does, that’d be overwhelming. But, bridging what I do at my day job as a judge and the issues that these other ABA entities within the Division of Legal Services deal with, there’s a real nice relationship. Bridging the two is really important. Because one of the things we’ve learned in the access to justice community is that things happen when there is strong judicial leadership. So I want to stay involved in the division’s activities. I also want to have a enough influence on the judicial side to really create better partnerships so that the great ideas that are generated will have an easier time being implemented. That’s my goal.
Alan Houseman: Right. And, judicial leadership has become a pretty critical part of access to justice in civil legal aid.
Lora Livingston: You bet. We’ve seen this with Supreme Court justices in Texas, Tennessee, New York, and California. In almost every state that has an access to justice commission, you will see very strong leadership from the chief justice or one of the associate justices on the State Supreme Court. And, that is critical to setting the tone, not just in inspiring lawyers and judges in the area of access to justice, but also making it possible for pro bono lawyers to do what they do. Making it possible for courts to implement local procedures and rule changes to make it easier for people to have access. Removing barriers of all kinds. Judicial leadership is critical to easing the transition into making it, just frankly, a lot easier to get things done.
Alan Houseman: You’ve won some awards, and I don’t know if there’s any that you’re particularly proud of or not, but talk about some of the awards you’ve won.
Lora Livingston: Well, I’m proud of all of them, but I’m getting one tomorrow that, maybe because of the timing, is very meaningful to me. Tomorrow I’m going to be awarded the Distinguished Service Award for Trial Judges by the National Center for State Courts. It’s going to be presented to me here at the Equal Justice Conference. I’m very proud of that. I’m also extremely proud of the Harold Kleinman Award, which is the award that was presented to me by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the program that administers the IOLTA Program here in Texas. The Kleinman Award is awarded to someone who has made some exemplary contribution to advance what the IOLTA Program is designed to do, and that is to make funding available for legal services programs that provide free legal services to low income individuals.
Lora Livingston: Being able to, as I like to say, put your money where your mouth is,was pretty, pretty meaningful. It wasn’t my millions of dollars. But, the money that was generated through the IOLTA Program went directly to keep the doors open, and the lights on, and keep the lawyers paid and the paralegals paid, and the support staff paid in programs that were actually providing direct services to low income Texans who needed help. That was the best. I mean, it just doesn’t get any better than that. So I’m very proud of the Harold Kleinman Award from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and I’m very proud of the award that I’m going to receive tomorrow from the National Center for State Courts.
Alan Houseman: Well, congratulations. That one I didn’t know about. It’s not on your resume.
Lora Livingston: Well, it’s not on my resume because it’s brand new.
Alan Houseman: Right, right. We’ll be here tomorrow, cheering you on.
Lora Livingston: Well, thank you. I’ll just also mention that the State Bar of Texas through the Access to Justice Commission named me as a pro bono champion a few years ago. And, I’m also very proud of that because, even as a judge, you can be a pro bono champion and you can not only inspire others to do pro bono, you can talk about the value of pro bono in the legal profession in any particular community. To be able to promote pro bono in that way is important for judges, frankly. To be recognized as a pro bono champion was something very special as well.
Alan Houseman: So, given your long involvement both in Texas and nationally on access to justice and civil legal aid, my questions are, what do you see the current challenges to civil legal aid and access to justice?
Lora Livingston: The current challenges are sadly many, and I don’t know if I’ll remember all of them, but I’ll start my list. One challenge is that I think that we suffer as a community, a national community, and we suffer locally from the lack of civics education in schools. We deal with legislators every day who do not understand that the judiciary is the third branch of government, just by way of example. They’re not thinking about the third branch of government as a branch of government, as much as they are thinking about us as a state agency. And, that is a mistake. It denigrates our role and our function in the government that was created by our founding fathers. It frankly does a disservice to the justice system when we don’t have the respect and we aren’t given the resources that are necessary to make the justice system function. We are essential to a civilized society and we don’t get the resources devoted to the work that we do in order to make it possible for us to do our best job at dispensing justice. That’s the first challenge in my mind. We must make a greater effort to educate everyone about government and about the judiciary’s role in the government, which is equally important as the legislative branch and the executive branch. That’s challenge number one for me.
Lora Livingston: Other challenges have to do with just how we use the resources that we’re given there. We obviously need to increase the amount of resources devoted to this work. But even with the resources that we have, we have to work smarter with those dollars to avoid duplication, to increase the opportunities for collaboration, to think creatively and outside the box about how to leverage the great technological advances that we already know about, to use those technologies to deliver more services to more people in locations farther away than we ever have before. There’s great effort on all of these areas, don’t get me wrong. But we have to continue to work diligently to leverage the little bit of resources that we have to make the most impact. That’s a challenge in terms of trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to do that.
Lora Livingston: Obviously resources, as I mentioned before, we don’t have enough. I would be remiss if I didn’t list as my number three, I guess, making every effort to increase the resources that are available for this work.
Alan Houseman: As you, and you’ve covered a little bit this actually your answer, but let me just expand it slightly, what do you see, or what would you like to see, or what is your vision for access to justice in the future?
Lora Livingston: Well, I like to say if I were queen, we would do this, this, this, and this.
Alan Houseman: Yeah, if you were queen, with power.
Lora Livingston: With power. Yeah, that’s right. With the power of the the pocket book. I think I probably answered a little bit of that already in terms of providing more resources to this effort. But I would also challenge everyone working on access to justice, and people that we don’t traditionally think of as working on access to justice. We need to include people outside the profession, in our effort to revamp the way we do business. I think we make a mistake if we continue to assume that the way we’ve always done it is the best way to continue to do it in the future. I think that’s a strategic mistake.
Lora Livingston: What I would like to see us do is to broaden the numbers of stakeholders because everybody that lives in this country is a stakeholder in the justice system. Whether you’re a lawyer or someone in the legal profession, or whether you’re a doctor being sued, or whether you’re just somebody who gets a traffic ticket, you are invested in the rule of law if you live in this country. Or, you should be. And, you are invested in a civil society. What the justice system ensures is a civil society where the rule of law is respected and important to all of its citizens.
Lora Livingston: If I had power, I would make sure that that we spent a lot of time strategically thinking and planning about how we were going to make sure there is no disparity in the kind of justice that is dispensed. Won’t matter what your skin color is. Won’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. Won’t matter whether you’re paying your lawyer a dollar an hour or $1,000 an hour. You will get great representation for whatever amount you pay in. And, it won’t matter if your lawyer was free. You’re going to get good representation. And, finding ways in order to make sure that justice is delivered fairly and equitably, and to all. That’s what I want to work on. If I had power, I’d figure out a way to do that.
Alan Houseman: Great. Well, let me end with an open ended question that can go on as long as you want, which is, is there anything we’ve left out that you’d like to talk about? Are there parts of your life that we should cover that we didn’t, or other ideas you have that we haven’t talked about or shared?
Lora Livingston: Well, I guess, I just came from an ABA Commission on the future of legal services. It’s a signature program of our current ABA President William Hubbard. The summit that was just held in California a couple of weeks ago was pretty phenomenal, and inspired me to continue to think about new ways to do what I do already — new ways to partner with law libraries and pro bono programs in my community, and other people who care about justice. It inspired me to find new ways to work with those folks to do a better job of what we’re already doing in terms of providing access to justice to the people in this community. But, I know there’s new ideas out there. I know there’s more that we could do. I know if we really put our heads together, we might find a new project to work on or solve a problem that’s troubling us at this time. So, I come back from that summit with a kind of renewed interest in working harder to get those things accomplished.
Lora Livingston: And the other thing that inspired me about the conference, I guess, was that there was a heavy focus on technology and innovation in the way that legal services are delivered. It made me wonder what the role of lawyers and judges might look like in the future. On the one hand, I came away thinking that we will need fewer lawyers and fewer judges in the future. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s not entirely a good thing. But, it’s not entirely a bad thing.
Lora Livingston: Exploring ways in which we can help lawyers make a living doing the things that we need lawyers to do is what we should focus our time on. But, we should also focus our time on finding ways for people to get what they need to have done and resolve their disputes in a way that, if it doesn’t need a lawyer to do it, they don’t have to pay a whole bunch of money to a lawyer to get it done. There are ways for lawyers to continue in this noble profession, and there are ways for us to make sure that people get what they need accomplished in the legal system without a lawyer if they don’t need one. Finding that right balance is where I think the sweet spot is in terms of this work related to access.
Lora Livingston: I’m starting to think anew about ways in which we can resolve disputes, ways in which we can do more holistic thinking about a person’s legal problem, and a person’s poverty problem because they’re related very often. I’ve come away thinking that there are many more ways in which we can train and educate lawyers and judges to do what they do better, and train and educate members of the community about ways in which they can resolve disputes without coming to our adversary judicial system, and about changing laws in order to make it easier for people to accomplish the things that need to be accomplished. I’m interested now in taking kind of a fresh look at the entire justice system and thinking about, if we were going to start from scratch today, what would it look like? I’m intrigued by that question, and I want to work more and more on the answer to it.
Alan Houseman: Okay. Well, thanks a lot. It’s great.