Donald Trump has proposed eliminating all funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the primary source of civil legal aid for poor Americans.
This would be a radical break from the decades-long bipartisan support the LSC has had since its founding in 1974.
The American Bar Association is outraged and is calling on Congress to block this cut before it harms the 1.9 million people helped by the LSC lawyers annually.
Why Should We Care?
86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help. Despite having one of the highest quality civil legal systems in the world, when it comes to the accessibility of civil justice, the United States ranked 20th of 23 high-income nations. Americans spend more annually on Halloween costumes for their pets ($350 million) than on basic field grants from the LSC ($335 million). By contrast, the United Kingdom sets its per capita spending on civil legal aid over ten times higher than the United States does.
As Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode has explained, when the public is denied civil justice lawyers, “domestic violence victims cannot obtain protective orders, elderly medical patients cannot collect health benefits, disabled children are denied educational services, [and] defrauded consumers lack affordable remedies.” If the LSC is eliminated, millions of Americans would lose access to civil justice.
In 2014, the late Justice Antonin Scalia echoed Rhode: “[T]he mission of LSC is to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation and to provide high-quality legal assistance to those who would otherwise be unable to afford legal counsel. . . Can there be justice if it is not equal, can there be a just society when some do not have justice. . . . [I]n today’s law-ridden society, denial of access to professional legal assistance is denial of equal justice.” Judge Learned Hand shared a similar thought decades before Justice Scalia: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” President Trump is trying to ration justice even more than we already do.
How Can We Fight Back?
First, call or email your Representative and Senators:
On smaller, specific issues, like LSC funding, constituent feedback has a serious effect. To call or email your Representative, type in your zip here to find contact information. To call or email your Senator, use this list to find contact information. Or, to call either, dial the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121. For tips on what to say, Voices for Civil Justice has a useful guide and the ABA has talking points. (If you have left your home district but your parents or friends still live there, encourage them to call by sharing — in person, or on social media — the importance of saving the LSC.)
Second, attend town hall meetings:
Town hall meetings are a great way to get your representatives on the record about defending civil legal aid. Plus, seeing constituents’ passion in person has a greater effect than having aides read them written comments. If a town hall is happening in your district — find out at The Town Hall Project — then show up and let your representative know that you value civil legal aid. Again, if you are looking for advice on what to say, Voices for Civil Justice has a useful guide and the ABA has talking points.
Third, write op-eds and letters to the editor:
Newspapers are eager to publish insightful op-eds and letters to the editor on specific issues in which you have a relative expertise. And Congresspersons receive copies of all the op-eds and letters written in their district’s newspapers. Op-eds and LTTEs therefore have a high effort-to-impact ratio in advocacy campaigns. If you are looking for some inspiration, check out Voices for Civil Justice’s list of op-eds and LTTEs on protecting civil legal aid.
Law Schools for Legal Aid
Below we will list law students, organized by school, who have fought back for the Legal Services Corporation. If you have fought back, tell us about it in the form on the right (or email email@example.com) and we will list you below:
Harvard Law School (2)
Pete Davis ’18 (called Rep. Don Beyer (VA-8), 6/28/2017)
Alexandra Glancy ’19 (called Rep. Brad Sherman (CA-30), 7/14/2017)
Margaret Kettles '18 (called Rep. and Senator, 8/3/2017)
Amanda Lee ’18 (emailed Rep. and Senator, 8/16/2017)
Let us know how you fought back:
News + Updates
July 24, 2017 – Senate Subcommittee is voting tomorrow, Tuesday.
The Senate Subcommittee responsible for the LSC budget is voting tomorrow, Tuesday. Call your Senators ASAP!
July 13, 2017 – Act on Justice site and twitter
July 1, 2017 – Update from the House
A House subcommittee has recommended a $300 million appropriation to the LSC, which would be a 24% cut in funding for basic field grants and a 22% cut overall. This level of funding would result in 417,455 fewer people served across the county, at at time when legal aid programs already turn away half of the people who seek service because of a lack of resources. The current (FY17) appropriation for LSC of $385 million is less than half of what would be appropriated if LSC’s 1976 funding kept pace with inflation. In 1976, 12% of the population qualified for LSC’s services; today 20% of the population qualifies. At the same time that the Committee drastically cut funding for LSC, they substantially increased funding for NASA ($218 million more than in FY2017; NASA’s total budget would be $19.872 billion), and they increased funding for the FBI, DEA, ATF, and the National Security Division of DOJ, among others.