The Legal Services Corp. and attorneys at its grantees work with people involved in civil cases. They help prevent families from falling deeper into poverty. While Congress appropriates its money, some are shaking their heads at calls to zero out funding.
President Donald Trump and his budget advisers, in the minds of many people, really don’t like the Legal Services Corp. (LSC).
In 2017, they sent a budget to Congress that would have entirely eliminated the program, which, although stretched thin, currently delivers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in legal services to poor people navigating civil cases. Congress rejected the proposal. In 2018, they again proposed eliminating the program – which provides lawyers to poor clients in civil cases, an area of the legal system in which the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee the right to an attorney – and again Congress said “no,” slightly increasing the LSC allocation instead, from $385 million up to $410 million – still far shy of the $527.8 million the agency had requested.
“I am confident that Congress will not eliminate our funding,” says LSC President James Sandman of the budget wrangling unfolding in 2018. Yet, he acknowledges, the budget that Congress has approved to date for his organization is still woefully inadequate: “In courthouses around the country, vast numbers of people don’t have a lawyer – in housing court, family court and so on. It’s a crisis. Current funding is not nearly adequate.”
In Hawaii, LSC data show an astonishing 96 percent of rental housing disputes feature a legally unrepresented tenant. In Philadelphia, 98 percent of foreclosure cases involve homeowners with no legal representation.
Indications, so far, are that, for 2019, the Trump administration, far from plugging the funding gaps and expanding access to legal services so that all who qualify financially for such assistance get it, will instead go for a third-time-lucky try to nix this nearly half-century-old program.
“The results [of defunding LSC] would be devastating,” Sandman explains. “LSC-funded programs are two thirds of the legal aid program in the United States.”
And, since the courts have held that there is no constitutional right to an attorney in civil cases, were LSC to evaporate an awful lot of Americans, people like Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. client Steve Friedman, would be left to fend for themselves as they try to navigate the byzantine court system.
Lawyers working for legal services helped the 62-year-old retired veteran Friedman – who lives in a small house in Homestead, a suburb south of Miami, with his wife, their teenage son and his wife’s aged mother – keep his home when he fell behind on tax filings to the IRS and faced a mountain of interest payments and penalties that he couldn’t possibly pay.
Friedman, who suffers from a raft of medical conditions, had worked for 28 years in the U.S. Air Force and several more in government service in Washington, D.C. afterwards. With his wife staying home to look after her ailing mother, his small government pension was the grand total of the family’s income. It was, if they budgeted precisely, just enough for the family to squeak by.
Their careful financial balancing act was, however, upended by his failure to file tax returns promptly in the years immediately before he retired – a failure that, he acknowledges, was no one’s fault but his, and one which left him no off-ramp. He couldn’t afford to pay the bills. Yet, the longer he didn’t pay the more the penalties racked up, and the more likely it became that he would lose his home and other possessions as the government tried to recoup the money he owed.
“I can’t afford a lawyer,” he recalls of that grim period in his life. “Everybody wanted from $2,000 to $10,000. I don’t have those kinds of means.” Finally, a veterans’ group that he had approached for help put him in touch with a legal services office, which doesn’t charge clients for the attorneys’ work. Over the following months, his lawyer, who specialized in tax issues, negotiated a settlement with the IRS that allowed the U.S. agency to recoup a portion of the money owed, over a number of years, but that protected Friedman’s assets from seizure.
“If it wasn’t for legal services, I would have had no place to go to, nobody to take my side,” Friedman says simply. “They make the difference in little people’s lives, when it seems the whole world’s against them.”
Take away LSC dollars and such help would likely have been unavailable.
Friedman was lucky that he secured legal assistance. The Florida Bar Foundation, which funds providers of legal services in that state, had, a few years earlier, experienced a sneak preview of what happens when there is a sharp downturn in the money flowing in. It wasn’t pretty.
Like many states, Florida collects a proportion of the interest that accumulates in attorneys’ trust accounts and distributes it to legal services. During boom times, the interest on trust accounts do remarkably well. In the early years of this century, it was doing well enough, in fact, to build up a rainy-day reserve of tens of millions of dollars. Then, in 2007-08, the state’s real estate market cratered. In quick succession, interest rates plummeted as the Federal Reserve tried to limit the Great Recession damage by lowering benchmark rates so as to discourage the hoarding of funds and to keep money circulating. The combination decimated the Trust Accounts program.
For a few years, by drawing down the rainy-day reserves, legal services managed to continue largely as it had before. Then, when the reserves ran out, the cuts kicked in. Suddenly, in lieu of $12 million per year from this fund, legal services had to make do with $5 million. The impact of the 58 percent cut was brutal.
“At this point we don’t provide any general support at all, it’s all grant-based,” says Catherine “Kate” York, grants program officer for The Florida Bar Foundation.
If there’s grant money to support, say, lawyers working with domestic violence survivors, those individuals will be represented; but for someone like Friedman, whose case didn’t fall under a broad umbrella heading for a grant, representation has become increasingly dicey.
In many counties in Florida, as the dollars dried up, legal services attorneys had to stop taking all cases involving clients trying to access public benefits for the basics needed to survive. Were federal LSC dollars to disappear on top of this, The Florida Bar Foundation has calculated they would have to drop 48 percent of the roughly 80,000 legal services cases per year in the state.
Legal services offices also receive dollars from an array of grants that philanthropic organizations give for work in specific legal areas or geographic regions, as well as from revenues allocated by cities and states.
Yet the amounts, and the purposes of the funding, vary greatly region to region, and also, as Florida’s experience with its trust fund shows, from year to year. New York City, for example, helps fund legal services specifically for eviction cases; and New York State recently announced a $100 million per year across-the-board contribution to legal services.
But in poorer, more rural states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Indiana, Idaho, Kansas and Utah, a paucity of state funding and private grants for legal services means that the system, made up of hundreds of legal aid organizations and offices around the country, overwhelmingly relies on the flow of federal dollars.
“Where poverty hits the hardest, you’d have the most cuts without LSC,” argues Don Saunders, vice president for civil legal services at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, based in Washington, D.C.
Removing that funding stream, would, says Sandman of the LSC, “be crippling,” forcing greater numbers, especially in rural areas far from urban hubs, to try to make it on their own in court hearings that determine whether or not they get evicted, lose their children to the foster care system or qualify for benefits such as Medicaid.
“We have a legal system created by lawyers for lawyers, constructed on the premise litigants had lawyers,” Sandman says. “If you’re not trained in the law and you try to navigate the system, good luck to you.”
Take the disabled Kansas City resident, for example, who, absent a good attorney, would likely have ended up homeless after his landlord gave him a three-day notice to vacate his home. Instead, the attorney convinced a judge to extend the eviction date out 30 days, giving him time to find a new place to live.
There’s also a 39-year-old mother of three (who asked that her name not be used) in the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas. She fled her abusive husband after he repeatedly physically attacked and mentally abused her and finally threatened to shoot her if she tried to divorce him.
For her, the results could have been even more devastating. When she finally gathered the nerve to escape to a safe house, the staff there, fearing for her safety, immediately called legal services. An attorney managed to quickly secure a protection order against her husband.
“Without legal services, I wouldn’t have been able to keep my children safe,” says the mother, a self-proclaimed Trump supporter. In threatening to defund the organization, Trump, she believes, is putting the safety of women at serious risk.
“He needs to rethink it,” she adds.
It’s tempting to dismiss the Trump team’s position to cut the LSC budget as posturing, as symbolic red meat thrown to their base – supporters who, as many observers say, instinctively dislike federal spending on the poor, in particular when those dollars are perceived to disproportionately benefit non-White residents in big cities (nearly 28 percent of LSC clients in 2016 were, according to the organization’s “Legal Services Corporation by the Numbers” publication, African-American, and another 17.6 percent were Hispanic); and impoverished women (nearly 3 out of 4 legal services clients are women).
That’s the same game Republicans played during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when they cast LSC as being the well-spring for “radical” legal strategies initiated by those intent on undermining landlords, attacking corporations for their polluting tendencies, pushing feminist and race-politics agendas and so on. And it’s the same game that critics of the LSC, including think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, played a decade later, when they pushed Congress to pass bills, which were then signed into law by President Bill Clinton, severely restricting LSC funds from going to class-action cases or lobbying efforts for large-scale policy reforms.
LSC survived the 1980s attacks, and, in modified form, those that followed in the 1990s. But symbol-politics are, nevertheless, important: Demonize a program long enough, and you eventually corrode its support. The Trump administration may never get to a point where they can successfully defund LSC in its entirety. But over the years, by repeatedly questioning its legitimacy, it may succeed in significantly slicing and dicing its budget, eventually killing much of it off by a thousand cuts.
If it wasn’t for legal services, I would have had no place to go to, nobody to take my side. They make the difference in little people’s lives, when it seems the whole world’s against them.
Cut LSC, and Colorado’s legal services would, says Jonathan Asher, its executive director, overnight lose $4.7 million of its $11 million, resulting in huge reductions in services, particularly in rural areas with citizens who voted for Trump, migrant worker legal issues and tribal communities.
In Kansas, where, hobbled by a rigid anti-tax agenda supported by many legislators, the court system is already desperately underfunded – judges in the state are paid less than in any other state in the country – legal services would have to fall back on the forlorn hope of increased dollars coming from a tiny stream of funding from that already stressed court budget.
Marilyn Harp, executive director of the Kansas legal services system is pessimistic about the implication. “We would certainly become half the size,” she believes. “And more importantly be no longer able to look at a broad array of cases that meet the needs of our clients.”
What would this mean for the justice system, and for those men, women and children who currently rely on free legal representation from legal services lawyers in a range of civil cases?
In all likelihood worse outcomes: more evictions, more parents losing custody of their children for no good reason, more people unable to access public benefits that they ought to qualify for, more people failing to secure restraining orders against potentially violent spouses, more people facing liens on their homes and incomes as a result of unsolved tax problems that a trained lawyer could have found middle ground on.
“I’d probably have been up the creek without a paddle. I probably wouldn’t have had no help,” says Sheila Murphy, a 54-year-old resident of Lake City, in central Florida, regarding what would have happened to her absent the presence of a legal services office in her town. Attorneys helped Murphy when the state wanted to take away her guardianship of her severely autistic, non-verbal son once he turned 18. She was helped again when the government erroneously tried to stop her son’s disability payments.
The Lake City resident, who left school after 10th grade, and who, since her son needs around-the-clock care, can’t work a job outside the home, doesn’t understand all the legal paperwork. She can’t imagine trying to navigate a complicated court case on her own. “I believe I would have lost custody of my son because of all the red tape. They’ve got red tape in between everything. Why you don’t qualify for this, why you can’t do that.”
As Trump continues to push for defunding the Legal Services Corp., Murphy’s experience is a cautionary tale of what sorts of travesties could result. “A nation where people can’t access legal assistance is a nation where justice falls short,” argues U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who along with Republican U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, co-chairs the U.S. House Civil Legal Services Caucus.
“If President Trump succeeded in his efforts to eliminate LSC,” the Congressman continues, “millions of low-income Americans would be forced to stand alone in our courtrooms defending their homes, health care and the security of their families.”
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. His last Equal Voice articles were: “Dismantling the Safety Net: There Are Calls for It. Why?” and “Is a U.S. Consumer Watchdog Neglecting Consumer Loans?” The United Nations cited his 2013 book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives,” in its 2018 report about extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. This story has been updated.
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