News Release

Texas Access to Justice Commission 
April 24, 2013

Champions of Justice Gala Raises $338,000 for Legal Services for Low-Income Texas Veterans
Texas Access to Justice Commission honored veterans at gala on April 23

AUSTIN, Texas – 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 on Tuesday, April 23, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center in Austin, Texas. More than $338,000 was raised to help provide civil legal services to low-income Texas veterans.

“Veterans bravely risk their lives serving our country. Legal aid can help low-income veterans obtain health benefits they deserve for injuries obtained during military service,” Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, the Court’s liaison for access to justice issues, said. “These courageous men and women should not be without legal assistance and deserve access to justice.”

“The Champions of Justice Gala honors the service of the valiant men and women who have made great sacrifices for our country,” Harry M. Reasoner, chair of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, said. “We owe them gratitude and assistance in returning to civilian life. Many face life-changing legal problems, including improper denial of disability and health benefits. With the funds raised at the gala, we can continue the fight to improve access to justice for Texas veterans.”

Lt. Michael E. Thornton – Guest Speaker

Lt. Michael E. Thornton, a retired U.S. Navy Seal and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, is the only Medal of Honor recipient in over a century to save the life of another Medal of Honor recipient. A South Carolina native, Lt. Thornton enlisted in the United States Navy in 1967. The lieutenant was assigned to SEAL team ONE, completing several tours of duty in Vietnam and Thailand. In 1982, Lt. Thornton received his commission as a U.S. Navy Ensign, after which he served 10 years as an officer in the diving and salvage operations. He retired in 1992 and was the last Medal of Honor recipient serving on active duty in the Navy.

Paul Melton – Guest Speaker

Paul Melton has served as the president of the board of directors for the Department of Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation since 2009. Through his involvement with the organization, and at the request of state and national VFW officers, Melton assists VFW offices throughout the United States, including departments in Arkansas, South Carolina, Virginia, New York and Texas.

Champions of Justice Gala Benefiting Veterans

Host committee co-chairs for the gala included prominent Texas attorneys who are donating their time for the effort: S. Jack Balagia of Exxon Mobil Corporation in Irving, Joseph D. Jamail of Jamail & Kolius in Houston, Harriet E. Miers of Locke Lord LLP in Dallas, the Hon. Harriet O’Neill of the Law Office of Harriet O’Neill in Austin, D. Wayne Watts of AT&T, Inc. in Dallas and William O. Whitehurst of Whitehurst, Harkness, Brees & Cheng, P.C. in Austin.

Major sponsors of the event included: AT&T, Exxon Mobil, Jamail & Kolius, Locke Lord LLP, Provost Umphrey Law Firm, L.L.P., Vinson & Elkins LLP and Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P.

Proceeds from the gala will be distributed by the Texas Access to Justice Foundation and dedicated to the provision of civil legal services for low-income Texas veterans. These services assist in addressing legal issues related to marital problems, difficulties in getting medical or disability benefits, wrongful foreclosures, and other situations that may arise due to a veteran’s absence during military service.

ATJ Awards

Several awards were presented at the Champions of Justice Gala to distinguished legal aid advocates for their contributions in improving access to justice.

Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award

Stewart W. Gagnon began his legal career at Fulbright & Jaworski in 1971 when he was just beginning law school. Gagnon became a partner in 1989 and now heads the firm’s family law practice group. Over the years, he has performed hundreds of hours of pro bono work through Houston Volunteer Lawyers, a legal-help telephone line, a veteran’s clinic and more. In 2012, he handled more than 50 pro bono cases. As chair of both the Texas Access to Justice Commission’s self-represented litigants committee and the Texas Supreme Court’s uniform forms task force, Gagnon has spent countless hours working to increase access to the courts for those who are not fortunate enough to receive legal aid or assistance from a pro bono lawyer.

James B. Sales Boots on the Ground Award

James C. “Jim” Harrington has spent nearly 40 years working to provide legal services to the marginalized and disfranchised. As director of the South Texas Project in the Rio Grande Valley, his work involved asserting the rights of farm laborers and poor people in the Valley. As the founder and executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, he has litigated many civil rights cases, achieving significant results. Harrington is also an adjunct professor at The University of Texas School of Law.

Texas Legal Aid

Since its inception in 2001, the Texas Access to Justice Commission has steadily championed to increase financial and pro bono resources to improve access to civil justice for vulnerable Texans.

Legal aid organizations help more than 100,000 Texas families each year. However, this number is expected to decrease as a result of recent federal Legal Services Corporation funding cuts.

Today, there are more than 5.7 million Texans who qualify for civil legal aid. Due to a lack of resources, only about 20 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income and poor Texans are being met. To be eligible for civil legal aid, an individual must earn no more than $14,363 a year. For a family of four, the annual household income cannot exceed $29,438.


The Texas Access to Justice Commission was created in 2001 by the Supreme Court of Texas to develop and implement policy initiatives designed to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for low-income Texans. The Commission has created several initiatives to increase resources and awareness of legal aid. For more information, please visit


Contact: Kimberly Schmitt
512-320-0099, ext. 104



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