It is an indictment of the current age that we must pause and applaud a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation around an incredibly important and seemingly uncontroversial issue. But such are the times.
This did not take place in the halls of Congress, of course, but rather among a group 32 state attorneys general, led by Massachusetts AG Maura Healey, a Democrat, and Colorado AG Cynthia Coffman, a Republican.* On May 22, the group sent letters to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees declaring their bipartisan opposition to the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate all federal funding to the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The corporation is a grant-making organization created by Congress for the purpose of distributing federal appropriations to nonprofit organizations that provide civil legal assistance. This group of state AGs joins the American Bar Association, state judges, over 150 law firms and many other concerned groups in opposing this assault on civil legal services for low-income Americans. This includes the elderly, and low-income military veterans and military families.
It is only fitting that a bipartisan coalition of public officials rallies around this organization. LSC’s conception began under President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” and culminated in the enactment of a bipartisan bill signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974 that created the grant-funding organization. According to the LSC website, in describing the need for the organization, President Nixon wrote:
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.
The need for civil legal services for those living near or below the poverty line, as well as middle-income Americans, has never been greater. According to the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services 2016 Report, approximately 63 million Americans are eligible for civil legal assistance through an LSC grantee, meaning their salaries were at or below 125% of the federal poverty line. And yet, current congressional appropriations allow LSC and its grantees to serve only a small percentage of those eligible for legal services. In many cases, legal services agencies must turn away individuals in need of legal assistance. The report found that “in some jurisdictions, more than eighty percent of litigants in poverty are unrepresented in matters involving basic life needs, such as evictions, mortgage foreclosures, child custody disputes, child-support proceedings, and debt collection cases.”
ABA President Linda Klein’s testimony before a U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee shed further light on this dire situation. Since 2010, funding for LSC has dropped approximately 18%, while the number of individuals eligible for free civil legal services has increased 25%.
Presidential and congressional defunding threats have long been part of LSC’s history. In 1982, President Reagan recommended that Congress not reauthorize LSC funding. Interestingly, state AGs also rose up to defend LSC, on a bipartisan basis, against the Reagan assault. Although Congress rejected President Reagan’s proposal, it did reduce the budget and impose onerous restrictions on LSC attorneys. Similarly, in the mid-90’s, a Republican controlled Congress implemented another round of cuts to the nonprofit corporation.
Defunding LSC would be devastating to some state legal services organizations. For instance, in 2015, Legal Services of Alabama relied on LSC for 88% of its funding, Dakota Plains Legal Services of South Dakota received 86% of its funding from LSC, and Montana’s Legal Services Association received 43% of its funding from LSC.
As news outlets have noted, this proposal would, in many cases, impact the very residents that supported the President during the election. The South Dakota and Montana Attorneys General, Republicans in states whose electoral votes went to Trump, joined the coalition of state AGs opposing the administration’s proposal.
Aside from the moral dimension of this proposal, studies have shown that civil legal services providers actually have a positive impact on state and local economies. A study commissioned by the Tennessee Bar Association in 2015 entitled, "Economic Impact of Civil Legal Aid Organizations in Tennessee," found that not only did the organizations have positive impacts on the client population, but with every dollar invested in a legal service organization, over $11 was produced “in financial benefits, extending to businesses, local governments and individuals across all social classes.”
The rationale for this latest attack on LSC comes under the guise of placing “more control in the hands of State and local governments, which better understand the needs of their communities.” On this point, the President may be right. So, to the administration and members of Congress, take it from 32 state attorneys general, the chief legal officers of their respective states, when they say, “[a]t a time of constrained state budgetary resources, federal funding plays an increasingly critical role in the provision of these services.” (emphasis added).
The fact that state attorneys general from both parties came together to announce their opposition to this unfortunate proposal, in this age of increased political polarization, should demonstrate to the administration and members of Congress the pressing need for continued and enhanced civil legal services for those who need it the most.
* This post initially misstated the number of state attorneys general in the coalition opposing the defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. It is 32 not 34 and has now been corrected.