Case Overview, Funding for Legal Services
This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over funding for the Legal Services Corporation. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.
Under our system of law, individuals accused of a crime has a right to a lawyer to defend them. The expectations surrounding civil law are less clear. We don't assume that everyone who is indigent but wants to file a civil suit should be guaranteed an attorney. Nevertheless, what of poor people involved in a civil matter where an injustice has been done to them? A lobbyist we spoke with offered this typical scenario: "Mrs. Jones, a grandmother of five, [is] kicked out of her apartment because her grandson was caught dealing drugs." If Mrs. Jones had no knowledge of what her grandson was doing, is it really fair that she lose her apartment? And if she can't afford a lawyer, how is she to challenge this decision?
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was formed in 1974 to establish a system of local legal services offices to deal with cases such as Mrs. Jones'. Although it was created by the federal government, it operates as a private, nonprofit organization. LSC receives an appropriation each year from the Congress and, in turn, makes grants to the 270 or so legal services offices around the nation. Each of these offices is an independent nonprofit and they receive funding from other sources as well. In addition to the lawyers they have on staff, they enlist attorneys from their community to take on cases pro bono (for free).
Many conservatives are critical of legal services because they believe it has an anti-business bias and because they think its lawyers take cases with an eye toward obtaining court mandates to expand governmental services or increase government grants. Although President Nixon supported the creation of the Legal Services Corporation, Republicans have become increasingly critical of it over the years. After the Republicans captured the Congress with a sweeping landslide in the 1994 election, LSC became an inviting target. The first year of the Gingrich era brought a reduction of one-third of its $400 million budget. House Republicans envisioned that as the first of three cuts that would end government support for legal services. The tightly controlled Republican Appropriations Committee has repeatedly reported these cuts to the floor. Said one legal services supporter, "we continue to have to fight it on the House floor." It's the Senate, however, where the money is put back in.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) have led the charge against Legal Services. Until he resigned in the wake of the Republicans' poor performance in the 1998 congressional elections, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) supported these efforts as well. In the Senate Phil Gramm (R-TX) has worked to push the House budget cuts. Another Republican, Pete Dominici of New Mexico, who headed the Budget Committee, is a program supporter and was critical in keeping LSC's budget intact after the first year's cuts in 1995.
The American Bar Association, the nation's leading professional organization for lawyers, has been a fervent advocate on behalf of legal services. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the trade association for public defender programs, has no more important issue than the budget for LSC. Despite conservative criticism of the program, there is little organized interest group opposition to the program. The National Legal and Policy Center has been an opponent of continued funding of legal services, though its advocacy on the issue has been rather limited.
Supporters of legal services make a number of different arguments. First and foremost said one lobbyist is that "We are a society based on the rule of law. Without access to justice, the rule of law is a one-way street." Another argument is that legal services helps people stay out of poverty; lawyers can help those struggling financially cope with sudden adverse circumstances. Also, advocates continually point out that most clients of legal services are children or women who have domestic relations problems. "This helps us put forward as sympathetic a face as we can," said one supporter.
Conservatives charge that legal services amounts to "social engineering" and express outrage at litigation aimed at achieving social change beyond the particular case at hand. Republican legislators got an earful from farmers in their districts and states when legal service lawyers began winning cases on behalf of migrant farm workers. Program opponents won a major victory in 1996 when legislation was passed forbidding legal service lawyers from litigating to challenge welfare reform, from filing class action suits, and from intervening in administrative rulemaking.
For conservative critics the most serious impediment to eliminating the Legal Services Corporation is that it runs against the grain of American jurisprudence: there is no justice unless there are lawyers to represent those who need one. Moreover, the conservatives don't have a convincing alternative to government funding. Even though legal service programs around the country receive funds from other sources, the loss of federal funding would be a serious blow to LSC and its constituent offices.
For supporters of legal services, the most serious impediment to greater federal funding of the LSC is Republican opposition in Congress. Democratic majorities in both houses would be a necessary but not sufficient condition for expanded support. Tight federal budgets also work against greater funding.
This fight has been centered in the Congress, with the House of Representatives serving as the center of opposition to the program. Although President Clinton supported legal services, the White House did not appear to be a major factor in this ongoing struggle. The Legal Services Corporation worked with its allies, both interest groups and legal service offices around the country, to mobilize opposition to Republican proposals.
Lobbying Activities and Tactics
Program supporters used a traditional approach to lobbying the Congress. There have been a lot of personal sessions with legislators, especially with program supporters. Moderate Republicans have also been a major target of the lobbies working on behalf of legal services. The American Bar Association has ABA Day, which brings prominent attorneys from all over the country to Washington. These lawyers spend a day on Capitol Hill speaking with their members of Congress. Legal services is one of the issues the Washington lobbyists for the ABA instruct the visiting lawyers to talk about with their legislators. There is also a modest amount of public relations, such as paid advertisements in newspapers and press conferences.