The relentless push to bleed Legal Services dry, part II

by Heather Rogers

Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of the June 20 article regarding funding cuts at the Federal level that have affected agencies like Legal Aid of West Michigan all across the U.S. Part I indicated that in real dollars, funding has declined significantly since legislation created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974, while need has increased. The opening sentences refer to Georgia representative Austin Scott, who recently offered an amendment to the appropriations bill that would have cut all funding for LSC, and fellow Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland, whose less-draconian amendment passed.

The full article, original reporting from “Remapping Debate,” can be found at http://www.remappingdebate.org/article/relentless-push-bleed-legal-services-dry.

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.

GLS has also seen a proliferation of debt-buying companies suing people, especially the elderly, for credit card debt for which there are no records. “Judges rule against the alleged debtors in these cases without themselves knowing the law,” Krisher explained. There are hundreds of courts in Georgia, and many are presided over by judges who aren’t lawyers, such as the magistrate in the case with the landlord. “Some of these judges are excellent but there are others who don’t know the law — and [those judges] are not friendly to poor people,” Krisher said.
Both Scott and Westmoreland justify cutting the LSC’s funding with the claim that the LSC is too politicized. “Instead of representing the needy, they have chosen to focus their attention on another activity — actively lobbying, even though it is against the rules,” Scott said when he spoke in favor of his recent amendment. Westmoreland has also condemned the LSC for lobbying.
Remapping Debate asked each for documentation of this assertion. Westmoreland’s communications director, Leslie Shedd, produced a single flier from a legal services organization in North Carolina that receives grant money from the LSC. The flier appealed to migrant farm workers on H-2A visas to protect themselves against unfair wages. It also said George W. Bush drove wages down and that Barack Obama would raise them. In fact, the flier did violate LSC rules in respect to the comments about the current and former chief executives, an internal LSC investigation found, and the LSC disciplined and withdrew funding from the local organization, said Sandman, the program’s president. It was, he said,  “an example of the LSC following its protocol of swiftly enforcing its rules.”

When Remapping Debate, seeking to determine whether the single flier was an isolated incident or part of a pattern, asked for further documentation of lobbying, Westmoreland’s office failed to reply.

Scott and Westmoreland also call for cuts because, they say, the LSC is duplicative of assistance from state-level agencies, private donors, and pro bono representation through bar associations and private lawyers. Because of this, in Scott’s words, the LSC is “nonessential.”

But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently conducted a review of government programs to check for duplication of services. In its final report, the body named 34 agencies that were redundant, but the LSC was not among them. When asked about this, Scott did not respond. Westmoreland’s spokesperson, Shedd, said, “With all due respect to the GAO, neither the Congressman nor I believe that the federal government only has 34 areas of overlap and duplication.”

Remapping Debate contacted several other Representatives who supported the Scott and Westmoreland amendments; none responded to questions.

“The Legal Services Corporation,” Rep. Austin Scott charged, “has, in effect, become bounty hunters who attack farmers and other employers.”

Responding to Scott and Westmoreland’s assessment that the LSC is unnecessary and duplicative, Phil Bond, managing attorney at a Georgia Legal Services branch office in Macon, said, “Just last Monday we had to turn 29 people away.” The office — which has two paralegals, five staff attorneys, and a lawyer on a fellowship — serves 23 counties with over 100,000 low-income people eligible for legal services. Bond said his office took on 76 new clients last January, but that there was three to four times that number of people the office couldn’t help. “We don’t have the manpower, we don’t have the capacity,” Bond said. “It’s really frustrating.”

As for pro bono services provided by the private bar, Bond complimented those efforts but said that “there is no way” that private attorneys were prepared to take on cases involving food stamps, public housing, and similar cases. “These are never issues [they face] in their practices; they’re not prepared to advise and represent people who have these needs.”
Why hasn’t the LSC fared better?

Over time, there has been sufficient bipartisan support for the LSC to defeat attempts to eliminate the program.  But the intensity of support — and the priority that the program is given — is limited. The current debate in Congress provides a stark illustration. No one is proposing a budget level anywhere near the $1.1 billion or more that would be needed to fully restore the LSC to 1981 service levels. Instead, the debate is now between a Senate bill that would provide $402 million in the next fiscal year, and the House bill that would provide $328 million. There is little optimism among supporters that the $402 million will be accepted.

Both Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) have spoken passionately against further cuts and in support of the LSC mission. Yet neither of them, nor any of the other LSC proponents in the House, pushed for a higher funding level. Remapping Debate asked Cohen whether support for the LSC is truly meaningful if the yearly bipartisan votes to keep the LSC alive include neither funding increases nor the lifting of substantive restrictions on the cases that LSC-funded offices can bring. “It obviously isn’t,” Cohen replied.

The non-governmental groups advocating for the LSC also seem to set their sights low.

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.)

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 $1 billion was the minimum funding needed, suggesting 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  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.”

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