The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry
John T. Broderick Jr., dean of the University of New Hampshire Law School and former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire State Supreme Court, offered an analogy to what happens in an emergency room. A person with an acute medical problem would not be allowed to go without treatment, he said, but that’s what currently happens in the justice system.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter has referred to courtrooms as “the last safe place in America,” Broderick recalled, explaining that Souter meant that the promise of the justice system is that, “when you enter a courtroom, it doesn’t matter your wealth, status, sex, race.” Broderick added: “Justice shouldn’t be determined by politics, bias, prejudice. If you go into a courtroom but you don’t understand the law, then you can’t use the law. To make those safe places real, we have to give people representation or we have to be honest about it and say it’s not a priority in American life.”
An unnecessary or counterproductive program?
There is a cohort of staunch opponents to the LSC in Congress. In the House, they include the 122 members who voted in favor of Austin Scott’s amendment, all Republicans. This same group, was joined by 39 additional Republicans and two Democrats (a total of 163 representatives), to support a different amendment by one of Scott’s fellow Georgia Republicans, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. Westmoreland’s amendment proposed shrinking the LSC’s financing next year by almost 40 percent — the program’s largest cut ever. By way of explanation, a press release issued by Westmoreland’s office asserted that, “the LSC has spent much of [its] time attempting to extort employers.”
LSC-funded office helps client avoid foreclosure
Marcia Cypen, director of Legal Services of Greater Miami (LSGM), recounted the story of a client who recently avoided foreclosure.
The woman had fallen behind on her $1,875 per month mortgage payments. By the time she came to LSGM she was facing significant back payments and was afraid she would lose her home to foreclosure.
The lawyers at LSGM helped her apply for the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), the loan-restructuring plan offered by the federal government. The process is lengthy and arduous, especially for people with no legal training. LSGM worked with her in filing documents, following up with bank lawyers, and in protecting her from administrative errors.
HAMP is “different for people representing themselves,” said Cypen. “They might have language issues, maybe they’re not as well educated.”
A week before I spoke with Cypen, her client had qualified for mortgage modification, and thereby had her monthly payments reduced to $1,059. “Now she and her family are going to keep their house,” Cypen said.
But not everyone who walks through LSGM’s doors gets the agency’s assistance. “There are people who come to our office with this same problem who we can’t help because we just don’t have the staff to do it,” Cypen explained.
“We create categories: If you’re over 60, or you have children in the home, or there’s a disabled person involved, those cases get priority. If you’re a single person or a couple coming in, we might just give you advice but not represent you,” she explained. “They’re just as much in need…It’s hard [for me] to sleep at night sometimes.”
On the House floor, Scott didn’t dismiss the need for legal aid among the poor — I couldn’t find any elected official who would. Instead Scott justified his amendment by accusing the LSC of opportunism: “The Legal Services Corporation has, in effect, become bounty hunters who attack farmers and other employers.” (Last September, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged a large farm in Rep. Scott’s district with a pattern and practice of employment discrimination based on race and national origin, specifically the favoring of migrant workers to the detriment African-American workers. At the end of Feburary of this year, a federal court judge permitted 39 workers, all represented by Georgia Legal Services, to join the case as plaintiffs.)
Neither Scott nor Westmoreland mentioned the impact that lack of access to legal representation has on many of their constituents. Georgia is home to 50 of the country’s 400 “consistently poor” counties — where people remain in poverty for generations. But there are few lawyers to serve this population aside from those who work at local organizations financially supported by the LSC. Georgia Legal Services (GLS) is the state’s primary source of civil legal aid, serving 90 percent of Georgia’s counties. GLS gets most of its funding from the LSC. “Some counties in Georgia have no lawyers at all,” explained Lisa Krisher, director of litigation at GLS. “Unlike in D.C. or New York, there aren’t lawyers around. If Legal Services went away there simply wouldn’t be lawyers available to represent people.”
Krisher described some cases in Representative Scott’s district in recent years, including some domestic violence cases in which the abuser is a member of law enforcement. If the victim doesn’t have proper legal representation, according to Krisher, “She’s going to have a hard time convincing a local judge to take a gun away from a police officer or sheriff.”
Krisher has also seen what she claims are numerous improper evictions in Rep. Scott’s district. In one case, a landlord sued for money the tenant allegedly owed for utilities, but had no supporting documentation. Regardless, the local magistrate judge ruled against the tenant and when GLS’s lawyer appealed the ruling, Krisher said, the judge “illegally” amended her decision, requiring the tenant pay an extra month’s rent in order to move forward with her appeal. “If our client hadn’t come to us she would have been on the street and had a significant judgment against her that she didn’t owe,” Krisher said.