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The theme for the 2024 Access to Justice Gala is “Labor of Love,” and the honorees will be Judge Michael Sachs, attorney Virginia Blumenthal, and paralegal Connie Johnson.

The annual event, held by the Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino, will “shine a spotlight on the exceptional contributions of these individuals who have dedicated themselves to championing justice for the indigent and underserved in our community,” they said in a save-the-date email.

Typically, events like these are about generating funding for the host organization’s services, which this is in part, but the Labor of Love theme is intended to focus on getting involved, L.A.S.S.B. executive director Pablo Ramirez said by phone Jan. 17.

“A labor of love is about giving back to the community, the whole pro bono concept, because we do it out of love,” he said. “We’re hoping to connect with the attorneys to inspire them to volunteer. Instead of asking them to give money, we may ask them to give hours.

“We are working together for one common mission: to serve and help those who need it.”

Service to community

L.A.S.S.B. provides free legal support to the indigent and underserved in the Inland Empire, according to their website, to ensure all who live in the area have access to justice.

“We like to provide a holistic approach,” Ramirez said. “We do the legal services but we also help if people need shelter, relief from domestic abuse, food and not only food but mindful eating for long-term health, undocumented citizens may need assistance with paperwork, we partner with Echoes of Love, in Colton, that provides spiritual counseling.”

San Bernardino County has about 13% of its population living below the poverty rate, according to the county’s most recent report, from 2021. That’s more than 285,000 people. The State Bar of California put the justice gap, defined as the percent of people who needed and did not get legal help, at 70%.

“The services continue to grow and there are always more people who need help,” Ramirez said. “Unemployment, homelessness, conservatorships over minor children. We’re trying to bridge the gap with new technologies to make our help more efficient, but that’s only one component. We also need more volunteers, especially in an area with such a high poverty rate.”

They saw an 38% increase in services given since last year.

“Resources will never be enough. The only way we can help an entire community is if we work together.”

Access to Justice Awards

Ramirez says the board’s choices for honorees were perfect.

“The goal is to identify individuals and organizations that make a substantial contribution to increasing access to justice to the underserved and marginalized,” he said. “When we consider someone, do they have a proven commitment to justice, leadership and inspiration to other leaders? Are they trying to use an innovative approach to reach the community in regard to justice? Are they active in the community, volunteering?”

Judge Michael Sachs

Judge Michael Sachs is an ideal awardee for many reasons, Ramirez said.

Judge Michael Sachs

Sachs developed the Inland Counties Judicial Mentorship Program, which supports aspiring judges in Imperial, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. 

“As people go into the courtroom, we all want to see somebody who looks like us on the bench,” Ramirez said. “It helps us connect. When I was younger, I never saw people of color on that bench.”

Ramirez also mentions Sachs’ leadership and outreach.

In 2020 Sachs’ response to the murder of George Floyd was to instigate a community outreach town hall series.

“He facilitated an important dialogue with the community that had to happen,” Ramirez said.

Sachs founded the Elimination of Bias Committee to to assist judicial officers, attorneys, and courtroom staff in maintaining a courtroom environment free of bias or the appearance of bias, and to promote educational programs.

“The committee is helping and making change,” Ramirez said. “We got to see the beginning as he implemented this committee, and we see the fine work that’s come out of it.”

Virginia Blumenthal

Virginia Blumenthal advocates for education and youth. She co-founded and volunteers with the Riverside County Mock Trial Program and is head judge in the county spelling bee.

“She lets the younger community know the benefits of giving back,:” Ramirez said. “Hopefully she sparks that interest in the younger generation.”

He also noted Blumenthal’s work on the Riverside Community College District Board of Trustees, where she serves as vice president.

According to her biography information on the event website, she opened the first woman-owned law firm in the Inland area.

“She champions women, and acknowledges them with empowerment awards,” Ramirez said. “I have two daughters. Any time people want to propel women, they win my heart.”

With too many impressive awards to list, he said she was an obvious choice and that board received multiple nominations for her.

“Her leadership in the Riverside County Philharmonic, the hospital and school district foundations…, she is an example of how amazing people can be.”

Connie Johnson

Connie Johnson was on the L.A.S.S.B. Board of Directors for many years.

“She’s always focused on giving back to the community,” Ramirez said. “She’s a strong advocate for single parents and lower income families, making sure we’re considering their perspectives. She holds the board accountable for doing what they say they’re going to do for the community.”

Ramirez cites her personal accomplishments as a big part of why he feels she is a champion of justice through example.

“She has pushed past medical challenges and her own time as a single mother,” he said. “A lot of people would give up, but she pushed past her challenges and dedicated herself to helping others.

He said her work resonates with him, because of his own story.

“I was a father at 19, separated. The first organization I went to was Legal Aid Service of San Bernardino. I was able to be part of my daughter’s life because of them. I understand what it’s like to be that dumb kid who doesn’t know where to turn. I want to ensure people have that service.

“Connie understands that part of our community, advocates so strongly for that community. She helps ensure people are in a better place.”

The event

The 2024 Access to Justice Gala will be Feb. 15 at 5 p.m. at the Fox Event Center in Redlands, at 123 Cajon St.

Crooner Troy Clarke will perform, and there will be a silent auction.

Tickets, sponsorship opportunities and full biographies of the awardees are available on the event page on the L.A.S.S.B. website. That is also the page to donate items for the silent auction.

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