Friday, March 17, 2017

Trump, Like Reagan, Hopes To Slam The Courthouse Door In Poor People's Faces

"We promote what Thomas Jefferson described as "the most sacred of the duties of government," which is "to provide equal and impartial justice to all its citizens." And we do it at a cost that amounts to less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget." -- John Levi, Chairman of the Board of LSC
My first job as a lawyer, over 30 years ago, was in a legal aid office.  I'm extremely proud of the important work we did on miniscule salaries and limited resources.  Our clients were people of limited financial means who sought help navigating the legal system against well-heeled landlords, unyielding government bureaucrats and abusive spouses.  We prevented many of them from being evicted or from living in sub-standard housing, helped them obtain government benefits they had been unfairly denied, and protected them from dangerous domestic situations through restraining orders. 

In those days, the Reagan Administration was aggressively seeking to eliminate the Legal Services Corporation altogether.  While these efforts failed, Reagan did succeed in slashing funds, resulting in the layoffs of 1800 lawyers, and placing on LSC's board of directors members who were ideologically opposed to federally subsidized legal services for the poor. 

Legal services came under assault again during the Clinton Administration, when the Republicans in Congress sought to cut funds and limit the cases LSC-funded legal aid offices could take.  One would think, given that Hillary Clinton had been a former chair of the LSC board, that defending legal aid would be somewhat of a priority.   But, as part of comprehensive welfare reform, Clinton signed off on restrictions to legal aid lawyers, which included prohibiting LSC-funded agencies from taking part in class action lawsuits -- in other words, offices that received LSC funds could only assist individuals and not bring or join cases that might impact underlying unfair policies and could have benefitted groups of low income people.

And, with every administration since, legal services funding has been subject to budget cuts that reduce the ability of legal aid offices to serve the low-income families who need assistance.  Last year's budget was merely $385 million  a year.  Its request for 2017 is $502 million.  But as the President of the American Bar Association (ABA) points out, "more than 30 cost-benefit studies all show that legal aid delivers far more in benefits than it costs. If veterans become homeless, or disaster victims cannot rebuild, their costs to society are significantly more."

But now comes the Trump Administration that, like Reagan's, proposes to eliminate the program altogether.

The ABA issued a statement condemning the proposal that would slam the courthouse door "in the faces of millions of Americans, denying them equal access to justice."  It noted some of LSC's worthy services include "securing housing for veterans, protecting seniors from scams, delivering legal services to rural areas, protecting victims of domestic abuse and helping disaster survivors."  It noted that "their offices are in every congressional district and they help almost 1.9 million people annually."

As Don Saunders, vice-president of civil legal services at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association states, “LSC forms the backbone of the civil justice system in the United States that serves low- and moderate-income people” and that “without the federal support . . . you will see veterans and victims of domestic violence, victims of natural disasters, seniors – a growing population with tremendous legal needs. You will see greatly reduced resources available to make critical legal needs across the United States.”

Yet one more thing to reach out to your Congresspersons about.  For lawyers, here's a link to the ABA's website that lets you fill out a form and send a card to Congress:


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