May 14, 2019
For the third year running, the Trump Administration has proposed essentially to end funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation ("LSC"). LSC is one of the primary mechanisms–if not the principal one–by which the federal government ensures meaningful access to our civil legal system for those who are very low-income. Through LSC, Congress makes grants to nonprofit legal aid providers that together serve every county in the United States, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. LSC administers additional, special funding to ensure at least some access to justice in civil cases for agricultural workers, Native Americans, and the victims of natural disasters. Notwithstanding the current Administration’s calls to close LSC, Congress’s and civil society’s understanding of its critical importance grows every year.
Fiscal Year 2020 funding for LSC: As part of the compromise that ended the longest-running federal shutdown in US history, LSC received an additional $5 million ($415 million total) to support access to civil justice nationwide. The federal government’s next fiscal year (FY 2020) begins on October 1, 2019. For that year, LSC has requested $593 million (a 43% increase). The White House has proposed only $18 million (a 96% decrease), just enough to wind down the program. LSC enjoys strong support in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and moderate support in the Republican-led Senate. In recent years, fiscal conservatives in both the House and Senate have been willing to provide at least level funding for LSC.
House of Representatives Support for LSC: Every year now, letters circulate among lawmakers in the House and Senate addressing their colleagues on the Appropriations subcommittees that fund LSC. In 2019, national participation on the House’s pro-LSC letter rose by 25 legislators (5%) to 206 representatives. California participation rose by 3 legislators (6%) to 29 representatives. In total, 35 Republicans signed including the Chair of the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus, Mark Meadows (R-NC-11), and California Representative Paul Cook (R-CA-8). Of California’s 7 new Members of the House, 1, Harley Rouda (D-CA-48), signed. This might be because the newest Members of Congress are still hiring staff and learning about the relevant issues.
Business Community Support for LSC: Two-hundred and sixty-two corporate General Counsels (“GCs”) signed this year's letter supporting LSC. This number is slightly (11) more than last year. Nearly 75 GCs from California signed including those of Facebook, Google, Intel, Pacific Gas & Electric, Salesforce, Disney, Twitter, Uber, and Warner Bros. Addressed to all Members of Congress, the national General Counsel Letter for LSC explains:
The federal investment in civil legal aid brings our country closer to meeting its foundational promise of equal justice for all. It is also good for business. As corporate leaders, we understand that the stability of our communities directly impacts the success of our companies. LSC grantees help families gain a foothold in the middle class, strengthening our local workforces and economies…
A growing understanding: The developments above suggest that a growing number of lawmakers and civil society leaders are recognizing that legal aid is necessary to achieve justice and effective at staving off poverty. In 2017, an LSC study found that “[i]n the past year, 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem, including problems with domestic violence, veterans’ benefits, disability access, housing conditions, and health care”. Due to scarce resources, however, LSC-funded legal aid providers will have to turn away perhaps as many as half of those who come to them for help–notwithstanding the tremendous stakes for our society.
Also taking hold is the understanding that funding for legal aid advances a fundamental bipartisan value: that even ordinary people should stand a chance of receiving the legal justice to which the law, and Congress, has entitled them. Very recently, a senior staff member to an influential Republican in Congress told an educational delegation from California that their office could get behind an increase for LSC–a marked change from only a couple years earlier.
Update provided to LSFN by Christopher McConkey, Senior Staff Attorney | OneJustice