The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry
When Remapping Debate asked the American Bar Association, an outspoken LSC supporter, what budget would be appropriate for the LSC in 2013, Bill Robinson III, its president, said $402 million. I asked whether that was enough. “It’s the Administration’s ask,” said Robinson. (Indeed, $402 million is the amount that President Obama requested from Congress.)
Chief Justices and court administrators call for restored funding
Earlier this year, the Conference of Chief Justices of state courts, and the Conference of State Court Administrators renewed their call for funding to be restored to the LSC. A white paper released by the two entities in March noted that, “In inflation-adjusted dollars, LSC’s FY 2012 appropriation is an all-time low for LSC funding,” and requested that Congress “restore funding to LSC to at least $404 million for Fiscal Year 2013.”
The white paper stated that, “The civil legal problems of low-income people involve essential human needs, such as protection from domestic abuse, safe and habitable housing, access to necessary health care, and family law issues including child custody actions.”
In February, the Conferences had already adopted resolutions reaffirming the importance of the LSC and calling upon Congress “to fulfill our nation’s promise of ‘Equal Justice Under Law,’ by restoring funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation to the level necessary to provide critically needed services to low-income and vulnerable Americans.”
At that time, the Conferences also stated that, “when large segments of the American population are denied effective access to the justice system and are unable to assert and defend effectively important civil legal rights and prerogatives, public trust and confidence in the justice system itself is placed in jeopardy.”
Don Saunders, vice president of Civil Legal Services Division at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, one of the LSC’s top advocates, claimed that it didn’t make sense to request more given the upsurge of conservatism in Washington. “It’s the reality of government spending,” he said. “Right now we’re looking at enormous challenges with government debate — you have all these politicians now who think government shouldn’t be doing any of this.”
Others did call for more money. Erin Corcoran, the law professor from the University of New Hampshire and former Mikulski staffer suggested $1 billion as a reasonable appropriation. Broderick, the former New Hampshire Chief Justice, who was also an LSC board member until several years ago, said that $1 billion was the minimum funding needed, suggesting that the LSC might require as much as $2 billion annually to do its job properly.
Remapping Debate asked some advocacy organizations why, in view of what they themselves have described as persistent underfunding, they don’t expand on the type of briefings that they or their lobbyists provide to members of Congress. Why, for example, not bring civil legal services clients to meet their elected officials? Why not raise awareness among the millions of Americans who could be getting free legal assistance if the LSC were allowed to grow?
Gordon Deane, president of the National Organization of Legal Service Workers, dismissed the idea as unrealistic. “The LSC was much more radical in its origins, it had its heyday,” Deane said. “Do we try to do that [outreach] again? Can you find people who will find money to organize in the community? You’re going to have a hard time doing that.”
Corcoran observed that during her tenure on the Senate subcommittee overseeing the LSC’s funding, most Senators and their staffers stayed trained on the numbers, not on the real lives their funding decisions affected. “If you have someone sitting across from you in a room who tells you what happened to them and they say, ‘If I hadn’t gotten help from Legal Services, I would have been in a very bad place,’ or, ‘I didn’t get help because I couldn’t access it,’ that would make a huge difference.” she said. “And I didn’t see that type of thing going on.”