March 9, 2017; American Lawyer
A few weeks ago, a list of organizations that might be proposed to be cut from the federal domestic budget to make way for a proposed major hike in the military budget started to circulate. On it was Legal Services Corporation, a program that has long enjoyed bipartisan support. LSC distributes federal funding to civil legal services organizations all across the country, which use it to defend the rights of low-income people—preventing unlawful evictions, appealing refusals of disabilities benefits, and holding workplaces accountable, for example. Around 2 million people per year use these vital services, and around 63 million are eligible. The services are critical to the principle of equal justice in all types of communities, including rural areas, where they are widely used.
Signed into existence in 1974 by President Richard M. Nixon, the Legal Services Corporation is a nonprofit that distributes funding to 134 other local independent nonprofit legal aid programs with nearly 800 offices.
Nixon described the federal legal services program as “a workhorse” in the effort to secure equal rights in America. At the neighborhood law office, citizens could find help in any effort to seek civil justice:
Here each day the old, the unemployed, the underprivileged, and the largely forgotten people of our Nation may seek help. Perhaps it is an eviction, a marital conflict, repossession of a car, or misunderstanding over a welfare check—each problem may have a legal solution. These are small claims in the Nation’s eye, but they loom large in the hearts and lives of poor Americans.
Recently, Jim Sandman, the president of LSC, realized he had not heard back from the Office of Management and Budget about its $507 million request, a 32 percent increase over LSC’s current $385 million budget.
“LSC has received no response to the budget request we submitted to the Office of Management and Budget last September, even though other agencies are reported to have received responses to their requests last week,” Sandman said. “It seems to be a signal.”
LSC began to sound the alarm among its partners, which include many high-powered law firms that provide pro bono services in conjunction with them. They were already organized to respond. Yesterday, 150 of those law firms delivered a letter to Mike Mulvaney, who leads the OMB, to express their concern.
The firms argued that the money leverages private sector money in their own pro bono work. “Eliminating the Legal Services Corporation will not only imperil the ability of civil legal aid organizations to serve Americans in need,” it read, “it will also vastly diminish the private bar’s capacity to help these individuals. […] Our ability to provide pro bono legal services is directly dependent on partnership with legal aid organizations. The pro bono activity facilitated by LSC funding is exactly the kind of public-private partnership the government should encourage, not eliminate.”
Of course, this reasoning assumes that the current administration sees core value in the legal representation of poor people. In 1971, Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN) said, during a floor debate on the bill establishing the agency, “If the poor and the powerless do not have free access to our legal system, government by law is a failure.”—Ruth McCambridge