Legal Aid Under Assault in Trump Budget

Along with plans to defund AmeriCorps, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, the Trump budget also attempts to do something Ronald Reagan was not able to do in his eight years in office – eliminate the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).

Reagan had a deep-seated hatred for the LSC, and when he couldn’t completely end the program with eight consecutive budgets that attempted to defund it, he made sure funding was kept flat and tried to put management and oversight of the program in unfriendly hands.

Reagan was unable to dismantle the LSC, but Republicans tried again in 1994 when it was targeted for elimination in their Contract for America. Legal aid faced another formidable foe in Ralph Reed, who led the Christian Coalition at the time. Reed claimed the LSC “subsidizes divorce and illegitimacy.”

Why? Perhaps because women comprise 70 percent of the legal aid client base.

The first legislation for a national legal aid program came in February 1971 in a bipartisan effort by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Walter Mondale and Oshkosh Republican Rep. William Steiger.

“If the poor and the powerless do not have free access to our legal system, government by law is a failure,” Mondale said during a floor debate.

In May of that year, President Richard Nixon introduced his own legislation that proposed the creation of the Legal Services Corporation, a legal system he said would be “immune to political pressures…and a permanent part of our system of justice.”

The act allowing the formation of the LSC was finally passed in Nixon’s second term – he signed it on July 25, 1974, just two weeks before resigning.

“This bill is the result of carefully extended bipartisan consideration within the committees in the Senate and in the House. It represents three years of effort and compromise,” Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson said at the time.

The new law declared that Congress had found “there is a need to provide high quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.”

LSC describes itself as “the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation.” The nonprofit corporation distributes more than 90 percent of its funding to 133 independent nonprofit legal aid programs with more than 800 offices throughout the country. It is headed by a bipartisan board of directors whose 11 members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Criminal defendants of all economic strata are guaranteed the right to an attorney, but that right does not extend to civil cases, even if they extend to basic human needs such as safety or shelter. Hard-working, low-wage earners have nowhere else to turn in circumstances of domestic violence or housing disputes.

Stunned by reports that President Trump intends to adopt a budget plan that calls for the full elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), advocates throughout Wisconsin are informing their Wisconsin and U.S. Representatives of the importance of legal aid for victims of domestic violence, low-income citizens and many other vulnerable populations.

“Reports that the Trump administration intends to fully eliminate a program that directly aids victims in communities across the country is as shocking as it is appalling,” said Steve Vickman, executive director of HELP of Door County, Inc. “The LSC is the largest single provider of legal aid for low-income citizens in this country, providing as much as 50 percent of the funding for programs like Legal Action of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Judicare. The importance of these services for victims in all communities cannot be overstated. Whether seeking employment, resolving housing issues or advocating for their children in the family law system, having access to affordable legal aid is paramount to a victim’s ability to protect themselves and their children, especially while coping with extreme trauma at the hands of their abuser, as is so often the case.”

“Any attempts to eliminate America’s principled commitment to supporting domestic violence survivors and other marginalized communities is irresponsible and shameful,” said Patti Seger, executive director of End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin. “End Abuse and member programs across the state call on our elected officials in Wisconsin to recognize the importance of civil legal aid for victims of domestic violence, and to protect funding for these critical services that victims across the country rely on.”

American Bar Association President Linda Klein issued a statement on the proposed funding cuts:  “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. LSC has had bipartisan support in Congress since its inception in 1974 because it embodies the principles that for two centuries have defined us as Americans – fairness and equal access to justice. These principles should be for all people regardless of economic status. As the budget process proceeds, the ABA will be working to ensure that Congress provides adequate funding for LSC. It is cost-effective, beneficial to millions of Americans and the right thing to do for our country.”

More than 160 law school deans sent a joint letter to congressional leaders in support of LSC, after a similar letter from 25 Catholic law school deans.

The letter stresses that funding for legal aid is a wise public investment.

“LSC has been a success story because it reflects a bipartisan affirmation of who we are as Americans,” the letter concludes. “As the late Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his remarks celebrating the organization’s 40th anniversary, the LSC ‘pursues the most fundamental of American ideals,’ for ‘without access to quality representation there is no justice.’”

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